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Posted: Tuesday, June 04, 2002

One guy can do only so much. The same thought that provided some consolation for Mike Bibby probably sent shivers down Jason Kidd's spine. The New Jersey guard was at home Sunday night, all the way on the other side of the country, when the Los Angeles Lakers took out Bibby's Sacramento Kings in the battle of California. But the message came through his TV set loud and clear:

You can have the series of your life, at the end of the best season of your life, and it still won't be good enough. Nobody is going to beat the Lakers by himself.

Bibby had the kind of breakthrough performance young ballplayers dream about, the kind Philadelphia's Allen Iverson had in the playoffs a year ago. Bibby crossed the chasm between star and superstar. In the biggest game of the season, he scored 14 of the Kings' final 18 against the Lakers, 29 pressure-packed points in all.

He stared down Kobe Bryant and lofted rainbow jumpers over Shaquille O'Neal. He covered for teammates who were losing their nerve, short-arming their shots and steering clear of opportunities as if they were pot holes. Just like Iverson, he showed guts and leadership besides, and all that, finally, wasn't enough, either, to knock out the defending NBA champs.

Because the Lakers have two guys like that. Sometimes, it's that simple.

Bryant, who finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, called his assignment shadowing Bibby at the end, ''the most fun I've had playing against any individual all year.''

Good thing Bryant never had to try and close down Michael Jordan in his prime. He would have died laughing. Fortunately, the next thing out of Bryant's mouth sounded a lot more sincere.

''It was a heck of a series,'' he said. ''They gave us a run for our money.''

Kidd knows his Nets will need luck to force the same concession from Bryant two weeks from now -- even less if the Lakers recover quickly from what has been an exhausting, emotional seven-game grind.

''It's destiny vs. dynasty,'' Kidd said late Sunday night, soon after learning the Nets had drawn L.A. ''Let's see what happens with it.''

But something he said next was easier to believe, too.

''The big thing is we know we're there,'' Kidd said. ''Nobody can take that away from us.''

For a guy who was already an established star, Kidd has been a revelation. He came to New Jersey in a trade last summer and promptly doubled the Nets' regular-season win total. And somehow, he found another gear just as the playoffs rolled around.

Besides becoming the go-to scorer and delivering assists on demand, Kidd has now taken the lead in New Jersey's postseason rebounding charge, too. Against Boston, he added defense to his leadership skills, absorbing three charges in the fourth quarter to tilt a close series in the Nets' direction.

But before getting carried away, remember: the Eastern Conference is the NBA's junior varsity. About the only thing the Nets won't suffer from is overconfidence.

Center Todd MacCulloch, who drew the short straw and will start out defending O'Neal, said, ''There was no sitting back and getting fat on what people said about us because it wasn't happening. So we are always trying to prove stuff to us, our peers, everybody.''

''Now,'' he added, ''there are more doubters out there.''

And for a very good reason.

These Lakers did get fat on all the praise people heaped on them, and it almost caught up with them in Sacramento. With two titles in a row, they could still be compared to the Houston Rockets -- a nice, little team that caught the NBA during a lull, at a point when it was ebbing instead of flowing.

But a three-peat changes the equation. It puts these Lakers where none of the great Los Angeles teams of the past went, in that rarified space that Jordan's Bulls and Bill Russell's Celtics once occupied. Another title would give Phil Jackson his ninth, making it harder still for anybody to take the criticism from former Celtics coach and president Red Auerbach seriously.

Winning is winning, whether you find the players yourself, develop, nurture and prop them up, or simply keep them from choking at the free throw line or throttling one another. Jackson inherited Jordan in Chicago and Shaq and Kobe in L.A., but they didn't win any titles until he arrived. Coincidence? Fine. Now explain away eight titles in eight finals appearances.

Kidd has a few complimentary players, but not enough. The Kings had more talent than either L.A. or the Nets. They were better balanced and they had the home-court advantage.

But the biggest games are decided by the biggest stars, and when it matters most, the Lakers still draw two trump cards to the everybody else's one.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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