By the time Shaquille O'Neal finally went to the Los Angeles Lakers' bench for the first time since the introductions, Rick Fox had just started to contribute offensively.
O'Neal played the first 40 minutes and 45 seconds of Friday night's 103-80 victory without a breather, scoring 30 points and grabbing 16 rebounds. But it was Fox whose fourth-quarter scoring binge helped O'Neal get some rest and bury the stubborn New Jersey Nets.
O'Neal, getting stretched out to 40 minutes per game on a regular basis by coach Phil Jackson, shot 14-for-24 from the field and had a season-high seven assists. The 7-foot-1 center averaged 34.8 minutes during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.
O'Neal, who averaged 37.5 points and 18 rebounds over his previous five games, powered the Lakers to a 47-38 halftime lead with 19 points and 10 boards. New Jersey coach Don Casey tried three different players in the pivot against O'Neal Jim McIlvaine, Michael Cage and Jamie Feick without much success.
"Sometimes, when he comes off the floor, sits down and then goes back in, he doesn't have the same energy as his first run. That's been the difference," Jackson said. "He's always been a good starter, but he somehow runs out of energy. Right now, he's sustaining the energy and focusing again."
O'Neal, who ended his night with an ally-oop dunk off a setup from Derek Fisher, left the court with 7:15 remaining and the Lkers ahead 82-65.
"I worked very hard this summer and I've just been doing what I've been asked to do," said O'Neal, who played the first 43 minutes in a victory over Chicago on Nov. 19. "But I'm feeling pretty good. I've been getting a lot of massages on my legs because they've been getting beat up. But I'll be OK."
Reserve forward Johnny Newman scored 24 points, and Keith Van Horn added 20 for the injury-plagued Nets, who have lost eight of nine thanks in part to the absence of Jayson Williams, Kerry Kittles, Kendall Gill and Sherman Douglas.
The 80 points by the Nets were a season low, and also represented the best defensive effort by the Lakers.
Fox scored eight of his 12 points during a 2:37 span of the fourth quarter, fueling a 13-2 run that increased the Lakers' 13-point lead to 90-67 with 5:42 remaining.
"I was talking a little to Rick tonight because he had gotten a little frustrated out there on a couple of plays, and I told him that he's really an x-factor coming off the bench for us," Fisher said.
"With his experience and knowledge of the game, we really need him to come off the bench and provide us with some source of energy, whether it be offensively or defensively. And that's going to be important for us to be successful as the year continues."
Aside from O'Neal, the rest of the matchups were a lot more to the Nets' liking. They kept the deficit under double digits throughout the second quarter, fell behind by 17 in the third, then got as close as 75-65 with 9:43 remaining on three free throws by Van Horn one of them coming after a technical foul against Fox.
"I don't see any progress at all," Van Horn said. "Regardless of how Shaquille played and he played a great game we have to execute. And we didn't do that at all. When a coach draws up a play, you have to be able to run it. And we didn't do that."
A.C. Green played in his 1,042nd consecutive game and broke the pro basketball record held by Ron Boone, whose streak included time in the ABA and NBA. Green, a 15-year veteran forward in his second stint with the Lakers, eclipsed Randy Smith's NBA consecutive-game mark of 906 on Nov. 20, 1997, while playing for Dallas.
"I've never been the kind of guy who would say, `I never want to miss a game.' I just like playing," said Green, who hasn't spent an entire game on the bench since Nov. 18, 1986. "You have to have a desire to play and an affection for the game."
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