- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. New Jersey Nets general manager Rod Thorn, voted the NBA's top executive this season, surveyed the stat sheet handed him in the locker room and shook his head.

It was a moment of exasperation that every man charged with taking his team to the top of the NBA heap no doubt can relate to.

"The Lakers were just great and Shaquille [ONeal] is getting better and better all the time," Thorn said Wednesday night, not long after the mammoth Los Angeles center had led the Lakers past the Nets for their third consecutive NBA championship. "There really is no way to stop him."

Ten years into O'Neal's career, few would dispute the assessment. In becoming only the second player to be selected as MVP of the finals three consecutive times, the 7-foot-1, 330-pounder sits firmly atop the basketball world at age 30. And as long as he is happy and relatively healthy, there doesn't appear to be a team in the league that can knock the Lakers from their perch.

One thing that might derail the Lakers, however, is the big toe on O'Neal's right foot. It has developed arthritis, and O'Neal said he plans to have it operated on this summer in hopes of alleviating some of the pain. Twice this season, it forced him onto the injured list.

"I'm going to just take some time off now and just hang out with my children, just chill out," O'Neal said. "[Ill] go out and meet all of the best foot doctors in the world, then I'll make the best decision possible. I've got to find someone to help me with my pinkies-winkies."

While leading the sweep of New Jersey, O'Neal set a record for points scored in a four-game finals (145). He averaged 36.2 points, another record. And the once-glaring weakness in his arsenal free throws appears to have all but disappeared. O'Neal's 45 foul shots made also was a record for a four-game series.

In each of their three title runs, the Lakers have lopped off the number of games they needed to win the finals, going from six to five to four. And in each run, O'Neal has been the key ingredient to which opponents had no answer.

"He's the most dominant basketball player in the game today," New Jersey guard Jason Kidd said. "I don't want to sound redundant, but with him there's really nothing you can do. No one can stop him one-on-one. And he might be the best passing center in the game."

What makes O'Neal, who is signed through 2006, and the Lakers the odds-on favorite to win a fourth straight title has been the continuing development of guard Kobe Bryant. Bryant has separated himself from a pack of players such as Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Allen Iverson to earn the distinction as the best non-center in the game.

This season Bryant, who once feuded with O'Neal for the spotlight, has happily accepted that this is indeed O'Neal's team. He is willing to bide his time as second fiddle, preferring instead to win championships as O'Neal's sidekick rather than his co-star.

However, the three titles have not quenched Bryant's desire for more. Before the Lakers concluded their trouncing of the Nets, talk apparently had begun concerning No.4, with Bryant leading the dialogue.

"I talked to all the guys and got everybody on the same page as far as working out," Bryant said. "You know, some guys 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."

"We're not going to let our guards down," continued Bryant, who is only 23 and signed through 2005. "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."

One thing the Lakers will not have to worry about over the summer is an upheaval on their roster. Of the players who were a part of their nine-man playoff rotation, only Brian Shaw's contract will expire.

The Lakers will need to tweak their roster slightly, perhaps adding a power forward and maybe a bigger point guard to the roster, but they probably won't do anything major. They have the 27th pick in the draft later this month.

Other than Bryant and O'Neal, the third key to the Lakers' success is coach Phil Jackson. Jackson has two years remaining on his contract, and there has been some speculation that he might not remain through its duration.

With Wednesday's victory, Jackson's ninth as a coach, he tied Boston Celtics legend Red Auerbach for the most NBA championships. And after the game Jackson sounded completely focused on winning another one.

"I'm looking forward to the challenge of trying to get back here and win a 10th," said Jackson, who dedicated this title to his deceased coaching mentor, former Knicks boss Red Holzman. "I think that's the distinction."

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