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Jury still out on Mason as plus/minus for Bucks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Is Anthony Mason the missing piece that will put the Milwaukee Bucks into this season's NBA Finals, or just the kind of distraction a team of already fragile personalities doesn't need?

Don't look at Milwaukee's 5-1 record going into last night's game against Utah as an indication of what Mason gives the Bucks.

Look at the box score from Wednesday's victory over the Washington Wizards, and listen to what Mason said afterward.

In 36 minutes, Mason didn't attempt a single shot. In fact, the only shot he took came after the game in the team's dressing room.

Asked if he is still finding his way with the offense, Mason said, "I know all the plays."

But it seemed apparent that the veteran forward is still not comfortable with the offensive philosophy of a team built around the perimeter shooting of All-Stars Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson, as well as point guard Sam Cassell.

Said Mason, who joined the team late in training camp after signing a four-year deal worth about $18 million: "I play to a rhythm and try to play the right way. You can't be throwing it inside after nine or 10 possessions. We're trying to win a certain way, but I don't know how you can be a championship team without any inside game."

Coach George Karl had hoped that Mason would give the Bucks an inside toughness they have lacked in the past. But aside from defense and rebounding, what Karl hoped Mason would bring was an interior scorer and passer.

So far, the only thing the seriously overweight Mason has given the Bucks is another quirky ego for Karl to massage.

"Mase has been great," Karl said, likely repeating what some of Mason's other coaches proclaimed during his 12-year career spent mostly in New York, Charlotte and Miami. "Right now, he isn't in shape. But he has done something that not many players have. He wanted to play in Milwaukee."

Not that Mason had many choices. After the Heat decided not to re-sign him, Mason and his agent stated that he would not accept anything less than what he eventually got from the Bucks.

But Milwaukee didn't have much of a choice, either.

"We had to make a statement that we would do what other teams have done to stay competitive on the floor," Allen said.

It will be interesting to see if the Bucks have enough to challenge the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic or Toronto Raptors for the right to lose to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Is Mason the missing piece?

Said Mason: "I'm the missing piece as long as they use me the right way. I'm not complaining, as long as we're winning."

L.A. confidential

Many believe the only thing that will prevent the Lakers from winning a third straight championship is an injury to Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal, or the kind of fractured relationship between the two stars that nearly imploded the team last season.

Now, there seems to be another factor that could impact this season. Despite a 7-1 start, there is a growing feud between O'Neal and Lakers coach Phil Jackson that could be merely a blip in the course of an 82-game season or could blow up into something more serious.

It started to simmer when Jackson questioned O'Neal's physical condition after his return from off-season foot surgery. It reached a boil last week when O'Neal took two days away from the team following the birth of his daughter, and Jackson fined last season's Most Valuable Player.

Initially, the fine was for two days, but even after reducing it to one because of what Jackson called a "miscommunication," it didn't satisfy O'Neal.

"There was no miscommunication," he said. "I'm taking care of business. When it comes to family, I don't have to call anybody. I'm not calling him."

Jackson, who has been known to needle his players in order to motivate them, was characteristically unfazed by the latest Shaq attack.

"Well, I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it, to be honest with you, because it's part and parcel with the personality," said the coach, who had to work through a squabble with Bryant last season. "I think that once he starts feeling better, he'll be fine and we'll be fine."

The rest of the NBA can only hope they don't.

Iverson is back

The return of Allen Iverson and Aaron McKie to the 76ers has quickly turned around the team's 0-5 start. Philadelphia had won four straight games through Friday night, and it doesn't seem to matter that Iverson is trying to shoot his way back into shape.

"From the outside, you would think: 'Allen gets 30 shots a game. What kind of team is that?' " said Matt Harpring, who was acquired from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the off-season. "When you're with this team, it's just part of him.

"This team has no egos. No one complains; everyone is fine with it. If he doesn't take 30 shots, we're like, 'Allen, why didn't you get 30?' He needs to take that [many] for us to be good. We don't have guys going home all mad that they didn't get 10 shots or 20 shots or whatever."

Who's hot

Forget the Lakers. They're in a class by themselves and should be judged differently. But how about the New Jersey Nets? Jason Kidd has made a huge difference since coming over for Stephon Marbury, and the Nets have gone from being a reflection of their former point guard (in other words, selfish) to their current one.

They were off to the best start in franchise history, 7-1, after Friday night's victory over the rival New York Knicks, and played host to the 76ers last night. Both were home games and could give an indication of what kind of season it will be in New Jersey.

Who's not

Forget the Memphis Grizzlies. The folks in Vancouver now realize that it wasn't the city's fault. But how about the Utah Jazz? Except for a recent home win over Orlando, the Jazz continues to look like an over-35 team playing in an under-25 league. Jerry Sloan's team might know how to play, but when you get routed by the Atlanta Hawks, that's a bad omen.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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