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For Lakers, adjusting is as easy as 1-2-3

THE BALTIMORE SUN

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - For Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, life in basketball would be a whole lot easier if things ran the way they do on Broadway, with the consistency of a script that never changes.

But because basketball is more like improvisational theater, Jackson and his Lakers had to adjust as they attempted to defend their championship. And because their stars, center Shaquille O'Neal and guard Kobe Bryant, and their role players were able to roll with the punches of a tough season, the Lakers were rewarded with their third straight title, defeating the New Jersey Nets, 113-107, Wednesday to complete a four-game sweep.

"The message, obviously, is always about being attentive and playing each play in front of you and playing each moment in basketball," said Jackson. "That's all there is, what's right in front of you. That's the message."

Unlike last season when internal strife, particularly between O'Neal and Bryant over who would assume the leadership role, distracted the Lakers, they stayed harmonious throughout this season, winning 16 of their first 17 games.

But for a variety of reasons, including persistent injuries to O'Neal and general boredom, Los Angeles went 42-23 over the final 65 games to finish 58-24. Though it was two games better than the 2000-01 season, it was hardly the stuff of champions, and the Lakers finished second in the Pacific Division, three games behind the hard-charging Sacramento Kings.

Once the playoffs started, however, it was business as usual as the Lakers breezed through the first two rounds, taking out Portland in a three-game sweep and then San Antonio in five games.

Then it was on to the highly anticipated Western Conference finals against Sacramento, which seemed to have all the energy and passion the Lakers were missing. Los Angeles was on the verge of falling behind 3-1 in the series until Robert Horry hit a three-pointer at the buzzer in Game 4 to tie the series at 2-2.

"With that shot, we were warned that it was time to get things going," said forward Rick Fox. "After that, we played the way we've played the last three years."

The Lakers overcame a 3-2 deficit against Sacramento to win the series and advance to the Finals, where they knocked off the Nets in four games to claim the franchise's 14th title and its first championship series sweep.

The win leaves the obvious question: What happens next?

The answers are likely intertwined, because they both are connected to O'Neal and Bryant, perhaps the best inside-outside combination the league has ever seen.

The two took turns dominating throughout the playoffs, though O'Neal made the Nets series his own personal showcase, winning his third straight Finals Most Valuable Player award and setting four Finals records, including points scored, blocks and - most improbably given his history - free throws attempted and made.

"I just knew that I had to hit them," said O'Neal, whose 66 percent free-throw shooting in the Finals was 13 percent better than his career mark of 53 percent. "In any part of this series, if I were to start missing them, they probably would go into the 'Hack-a-Shaq' as a strategy. I didn't feel like going through that. I said to myself, 'We need them all. Hack-a-Shaq never really worked anyway.' So, I was just concentrating and I was shooting them."

Meanwhile, Bryant, whose jumper in the lane over two Nets in the final 20 seconds was the winning basket in Game 3, was just slightly less remarkable in the Finals, averaging 26.8 points in the series.

"They [the Lakers] have a great core, when you talk about Shaq and Kobe," said New Jersey guard Jason Kidd. "But you can't win a game with just two guys. If you want, [their] so-called role players played big this whole season."

Four of those role players - Fox, Horry, Derek Fisher and Devean George - each hit at least two three-pointers in the Game 4 win, and their continued ability to make big shots should only make Bryant and O'Neal that much more effective.

Of the Lakers' core players, only George is a free agent, and though he might not be able to crack the starting lineup in Los Angeles, he likely won't find a better opportunity to win championships elsewhere.

The Lakers are likely to say goodbye to guard Mitch Richmond, the 14-year veteran who won his first ring Wednesday, but played sparingly throughout the season and the playoffs.

The consensus around the league seems to be that as long as O'Neal and Bryant are healthy and interested and the team's front office can keep them surrounded with solid contributors, the Lakers will at least be in the title hunt for the foreseeable future.

The first order of business this summer is for O'Neal to take care of his arthritic right big toe. The 7-foot-1 center said he plans to take some time off, play with his children, then meet with podiatrists to help him with his "pinkie-winkies."

"The most important thing is just staying healthy," said Bryant. "I don't know what Shaquille is going to do with his toe this summer, but I talked to all the guys and got everybody on the same page as far as working out. Some guys [on other teams] have had two months, a month and a half off. They're plotting. They're waiting. I'm sure Sacramento's working out right now."

"And we're not going to let our guards down. We're going to come back next year ready to play. They're going to try to take what we have, and we're going to be waiting for them."

Sounds like the first line to a long-running play.

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