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Center Stage Trading blows and barbs, big men Vlade Divac and Shaquille O'Neal have turned the Western finals into comic opera

It has been a series of bad shooting, bad acting and bad room
service, a series of posturing and woofing, a series of
spectacular rallies, spectacular runs and at least one case of,
well, the plain old-fashioned runs. Thus it has served as the
perfect stage for those two comic-operatic centers: Shaquille
O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers, the 7'1", 345-pound,
millionaire rapper who in the midst of the Western Conference
finals declared himself "representative of the common man"; and
Vlade Divac of the Sacramento Kings, the back-slapping,
sleepy-eyed citizen of the world who, if the Lakers are to be
believed, flops more than all the mammals in all the tanks at
Sea World.

After three games that played out like an imperfect yet
enjoyable B movie, Sunday's Game 4 in Los Angeles was decided by
a hero with a true sense of drama, forward Robert Horry, whose
walk-off three-point shot gave L.A. a breathtaking 100-99
victory to even the series at 2-2. In the timeout that preceded
Horry's dagger, teammate Lindsey Hunter had said in the huddle,
"It's time for Big Game Rob to take over." All sorts of
unpredictable stuff happened before he got the ball, but Horry,
whose resume is peppered with clutch threes, is clearly a man
who honors a cue.

The stunning comeback (the Lakers trailed by 24 in the second
quarter) may have conveyed the impression that L.A. had regained
the upper hand after a crushing 103-90 Game 3 loss at home last
Friday. Don't be too sure. Little had gone according to script
in the series through Sunday; unexpected plot twists included a
road victory for each team and Kobe Bryant's midnight
room-service meal of a cheeseburger and cheesecake between Games
1 and 2 in Sacramento, which evidently gave him a case of food
poisoning. One caller to an L.A. radio show suggested that a New
Jersey mob guy had gotten to the Sacramento Hyatt kitchen staff
because a sick Kobe might pave the way for a Nets victory in the
Finals. Attention, Boston Celtics: Beware any chef who resembles
Paulie Walnuts.

If the Lakers are to continue their pursuit of a three-peat,
they must get more help for Shaq, Kobe and Big Game. (Anyone
spotting supporting players Hunter, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox,
Devean George and Samaki Walker should call the LAPD
immediately.) If the Kings are to stop that quest, they will
have to figure out a way to release 6'1" point guard Mike Bibby
from Bryant's clutches. Bibby, the breakout player of this
postseason, had 21 points in Game 4 but only three of them in
the second half, during which he was guarded largely by the 6'7"
Bryant, perhaps the league's best on-the-ball stopper.

Sacramento will also need the many and varied contributions of
Divac, who scored a team-high 23 points on Sunday and who has
used his defensive skills (the Lakers would say deviousness) to
keep Shaq (27.0 points per game through Game 4) from running
amok. Divac will throw in an arm bar, locking up O'Neal around
his elbow. Divac will appear on one side of Shaq, then suddenly
dart to the other, like a thief staying in the shadows. Divac
will back off to put space between himself and Shaq because
O'Neal is at his best when he feels contact. In an effort to
shackle Shaq, Divac will also stare at the referees in
disbelief, appeal to the heavens and, yes, occasionally fall to
the ground. (The Sacramento Bee recognized Divac's thespian
skills on Oscar night three years ago, presenting him with the
NBA's best actor award.) Before halftime in Game 2 at Arco
Arena, O'Neal had scored 23 points when he was whistled for his
third offensive foul, drawn, of course, by the Barrymore of the
Boards. Lakers coach Phil Jackson leaped off the bench to
protest and drew a technical foul. His efficacy reduced, Shaq
finished with 35 points in a 96-90 Kings win, which tied the
series at 1-1.

Divac has not dominated the series, but the Big Serb and the Big
Aristotle have certainly defined it. It might be going too far
to call Sunday's game the most important one of O'Neal's 10-year
career. But only a little too far, for it followed a tepid
effort in Game 3, at the outset of which he effectively said,
like Melville's Bartleby the scrivener, "I would prefer not to."
Frustrated by the calls in Games 1 and 2, O'Neal told his mates
not to go to him early, until he could see how the game was
being officiated. By the time O'Neal chose to enter the fray,
the Kings had run off to a 32-15 first-quarter lead and were
never caught.

"There is only one way to beat us," O'Neal said between Games 2
and 3. "It starts with c and ends with t." There was some
head-scratching before it was divined that O'Neal meant "cheat"
and not something either X-rated or far out, like "covenant" or
"coronet." Shaq also referred to Divac as "she" and rambled on
about being a regular Joe who would never exaggerate contact to
draw a whistle. "I'm a guy with no talent who has gotten this
way with hard work," said Shaq. Stopping a few characters short
of becoming the Village People, Shaq also said, "I represent the
construction worker, the police officer, the firefighter." Given
his shoulder-lowering tendencies on offense, O'Neal's whining
about the refs came across like Pavarotti's complaining about a
restaurant's pasta portions: He might have a point, but he's the
wrong person to bring it up.

Horry and Fox suggested before Game 4 that Shaq should stop
worrying about the whistles and play his power game, which is
what he did, going right at Divac and his replacement, Scot
Pollard. As Bryant struggled to find his rhythm in a scoreless
first quarter, Shaq carried the load almost alone and finished
with 27 points and 18 rebounds, both game highs. He also made
six straight free throws down the stretch. Considering his
ongoing battle with an arthritic right big toe, it might seem
like good news for the Lakers that Shaq was so effective over 42
minutes. But what it also means is that O'Neal will have to play
exactly that hard and that long every game for the rest of the

It's unfortunate that Divac, at least when he plays in
L.A.--where he is lustily booed and was serenaded with a chorus
of Vla-de sucks! during the second quarter on Sunday--is known
primarily for his theatrics. In fact, he is a throwback to the
old-school pivotmen, like Johnny (Red) Kerr, who were not
dominant forces but rather team players proficient in all
aspects of the game. Divac was in the middle of almost
everything down the stretch in Game 4, including two plays that
were unfortunate for the Kings. His driving bucket with 11.8
seconds left was waved off because of a phantom foul call on
Fox. "He never even touched a hair on my arm," said Divac, who
made only one of two free throws to give Sacramento a 99-97
lead. And there was Divac batting an O'Neal miss out to Horry at
the top of the key, where he launched his game-winner. No matter
the result, Divac's play was the correct one, an effort to keep
O'Neal from getting a follow shot and at the same time kill the
clock. It failed by about six tenths of a second, which is when
Horry let fly, giving the Lakers the lead for the first time
since 2-0.

Divac later offhandedly called the shot "lucky," a word that was
scoffed at by the Lakers. Sacramento star Chris Webber clarified
Divac's remark: The Kings felt the sequence of events leading up
to the shot was lucky for the Lakers (which it was), though
Horry's stroke was skill (which it was). No matter. Whatever
Divac says or does, the Lakers are going to jump on it. Even
more than Webber, Divac is the lightning rod for criticism, and
it never seems to perturb him. Vlade, what about Shaq calling
you "she"? "It would bother me if Shaq was bad man. But he is
good man." Vlade, what about a crowd that was once your own (he
played in L.A. from 1989-90 to '95-'96) yelling that you suck?
"It is just a game. I know they love me." Vlade, don't you
resent the Lakers because they seem to dis you at every
opportunity? "Oh, no. They are my second-favorite team, after
the Kings."

Divac is the leader who organizes the Kings' Christmas gift
exchange, the leader who speaks to the media after disheartening
defeats, the leader who, in the words of Pollard, "turns all of
us into good guys by making us smile, making us get along." This
is not to say that the Lakers aren't good guys or even regular
guys. About 90 minutes after his dramatic shot, Horry walked
into one of his haunts, Maggiano's, a restaurant near Beverly
Hills, shyly acknowledged the applause and warmly signed
autographs as he ate in a booth with two friends. Big Gamers
don't come any nicer than Horry. Still, the Lakers are
distinguished by their superstars, Bryant, with his endless
supply of designer shades, and Shaq, with his endless supply of
designer pronouncements.

The Kings, by contrast, are a team in every sense of the word,
their multicultural unity maintained by Divac. He knows how to
pep up Webber, calm down Bibby and hold sway over the other two
thirds of the Euro trinity that Pollard refers to as "the
father, the son and the holy Turk"--Peja Stojakovic (who could
possibly miss the rest of the series with a sprained right
ankle) and swingman Hedo Turkoglu (who, after Game 1, played
superbly in Peja's stead). Minutes after the disappointing loss,
as some of his teammates chirped about the officiating,
specifically the call on Fox that sent Divac to the line and
what they perceived as Bryant's manhandling of Bibby, Divac
gathered the squad together and said words to this effect: We
should be happy, not discouraged. This kind of game is fun, not
disappointing. It is what basketball should be.

And as of last weekend, there was plenty of fun remaining.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Long arm of L.A. The Kings' Vlade Divac has to get around a limb to score on Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers. [T of C]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SHOVE IT Divac got in his licks against O'Neal in Game 4, but Shaq struck back by putting aside his beefs with the refs.

COLOR PHOTO: HECTOR AMEZCUA/SACRAMENTO BEE/AP OUCH Horry's game-winning three over Webber on Sunday only momentarily fazed Divac, who proceeded to cheer up his mates.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above]

Vlade, what about O'Neal calling you "she"? "It would bother me
if Shaq was bad man. But he is good man."