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Monday, April 26, 2004
Ordering double shot of Shaq, Kobe

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

America ... we have a series.

Almost had one, anyway.

Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant
The Lakers won't get by the Spurs if Shaq or Kobe takes a game off.
The Houston Rockets invalidated that clichéd pronouncement Sunday afternoon, failing to hold onto a four-point lead late in overtime that could have evened the Rockets' first-round series with the Lakers at 2-2.

With L.A. up 3-1, then, it's inevitable that folks -- yeah, us -- will start examining the problems awaiting L.A. post-Houston.

That's because L.A., on top of all its injury fears and locker-room tensions, faces some biggies. Given how average they've looked for long stretches against the Rockets, and how thoroughly San Antonio broomed out the deep darlings from Memphis, the Lakers must already realize what they'll have to have to topple the Spurs.

That would be two studly performances in the same game at least four times.

That would be four combined detonations from a flowing Shaq and Kobe, basically.

The problem? In four games against inexperienced Houston, it has happened only once for the Lakers, and Shaquille O'Neal wasn't part of that breakthrough twosome: Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone finally formed a dominant tag team in Game 4. Shaq simply hasn't been the wrecking ball some of us -- yes, me -- were expecting, based mostly on the assumption that he'd be amped up earlier than ever in the playoffs after every preview in circulation focused on his forthcoming showdown in the pivot with Yao Ming.

Turns out L.A. doesn't need Shaq to disassemble Yao to advance comfortably to the second round. O'Neal can get away with coasting a bit against the Rockets to save energy for later, and Houston's unheralded defense -- good on Bryant as well as Shaq -- has to get some credit for limiting The Diesel's damage.

Just remember: In the next round, there won't be any room for conservation or rationalization. The Lakers have to have spurts of domination from Shaq against Tim Duncan, or else Phil Jackson will still be stuck on nine rings, sent home early by the Spurs again.

  • The Rockets have done it with a lot of trapping and help, but they've made Bryant work hard for his points, running various defenders at him to hound Kobe into 33.9-percent shooting for the series. No matter what happens next, Cuttino Mobley has clearly enhanced his reputation as a defender.

  • If you're one of those folks who wishes the first round would revert to a best-of-five format, you ain't alone. Not when three of the eight first-round snoozes end in four-game sweeps anyway.

    Last season, when best-of-seven was introduced for the first round, only one of the eight series ended in less than six games. This spring, sadly, only four matchups (Detroit vs. Milwaukee, Miami vs. New Orleans, Minnesota vs. Denver and Sacramento vs. Dallas) have a legitimate shot at lasting more than five games. It wouldn't be surprising, furthermore, if three of those -- all but Kings vs. Mavericks -- ended in five.

  • For the umpteenth time we say: Do not underestimate the Nets, at least in the East. New Jersey has now won 14 consecutive playoff games against teams from its own conference, and you can be sure that the Nets will swagger into the Detroit series believing they're the favorites, even if no one else thinks so. With the extra rest Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin can enjoy after sweeping the Knicks, the Pistons are going to have problems in the next round. Trust us.

  • So if the Knicks wanted the Nets, what would have happened if New York played Indiana or Detroit in the first round?

  • Lock Kurt Thomas and Kenyon Martin in a room and then you'd have a Nets-Knicks tangle worth discussing. Tim Thomas could have made the Knicks more competitive in the series -- ditto for the injured Allan Houston -- but there's absolutely zero doubt here: Tim isn't the Thomas who should be talking tough-guy trash with K-Mart.

  • No offense to Stu Jackson, but with Don Nelson and Bobby Jackson in the building Saturday night, there were plenty of esteemed sixth men in attendance to present Antawn Jamison with his Sixth Man Award instead of the league's chief of discipline.

  • Fining teams for in-game video antics is not Jackson's department, but the league is indeed investigating a cartoon skit the Mavericks aired before Saturday's tipoff that featured likenesses of Doug Christie on a leash tugged by his wife and Chris Webber being showered with money from the University of Michigan. Kings players haven't said much publicly about the cartoon, but sources indicate that more than a few were more than a bit peeved. The Mavericks know a fine is inevitably coming, although Mark Cuban is bound to see it as money well spent.

    Trust us II: If you were in American Airlines Center to see this extended cartoon, you'd still be talking about it.

  • LeBron James actually has more in common these days with Yao than Carmelo Anthony. Haters out there want to devalue their rookie seasons -- LeBron's and Yao's -- because their teams missed the playoffs by a whopping two games combined. As if such a scant margin of playoff failure changes how good they really were as rookies.

  • We have to take back at least a sliver of our sympathy for 'Melo, but not because of that last item. With word spreading in the past week that he has scooped up Christina Aguilera as a girlfriend, dare we say he came up with his own trophy in the end.

    Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.