LOS ANGELES -- A game that began as a mismatch became only mildly intriguing. Whenever it got close, the champs were able to keep their distance.
The Los Angeles Lakers let a 23-point lead slip to three in the fourth quarter before Shaquille O'Neal & Co. finished off the New Jersey Nets 99-94 Wednesday night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Nobody will remember this one as an NBA classic, especially the underdogs representing the Eastern Conference. The Nets were out of their league in the first 15 minutes of the game, digging themselves a hole that was too deep to climb out of.
O'Neal was as dominant as everyone expected, totaling 36 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks. Kobe Bryant did his thing, too, scoring 22 points with six assists -- the biggest of which was his feed to Rick Fox for a layup with 1:11 left that gave Los Angeles a 95-87 lead.
''This game was sort of a feeling-out game. I'm sure each game is going to be different,'' O'Neal said. ''We're a little disappointed in ourselves, but the first game is out of the way and I'm sure the second one will be better.''
For the most part, Los Angeles stayed in control and dictated the style of play, keeping the Nets from playing the uptempo game they prefer. The Lakers also were the more aggressive rebounders and the more accurate free throw shooters -- two huge intangibles on a night when the Lakers weren't crisp offensively over the final 2 1/2 quarters.
''I got them revved up for the first quarter, but we kind of let up on the gas,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
The two-time defending champions wrapped things up by going 6-for-8 from the free throw line over the final two minutes. The Nets had a few chances to hit 3-pointers and turn it into a two-point game in the final 30 seconds, but they couldn't come up with the key buckets.
Game 2 is Friday night at Staples Center.
Jason Kidd had 23 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for the first triple-double in the NBA Finals since Charles Barkley did it for Phoenix in 1993. But no one else seemed prepared to assert himself for the Nets, whether it was Kenyon Martin refusing to take wide-open jumpers, Keith Van Horn failing to get going early or Kerry Kittles not doing much of anything all night.
Most damaging to the Nets was their free throw shooting as they missed 11 of 26 attempts.
''I think the guys were probably a little nervous. The last time we were nervous was the first game of the playoffs against Indiana,'' Nets coach Byron Scott said.
Fox added 14 points and Derek Fisher had 13 for the Lakers, whose only deficit was 2-0.
The game lacked the level of electricity normally found at an NBA Finals, the celebrity studded crowd acting as relaxed and casual as the Lakers played. The Nets gave them only scant opportunities to get nervous, pulling within four points midway through the third and within three with 5:26 left in the fourth.
''I think we were kind of lackadaisical,'' O'Neal said, summing it up perfectly. ''We got a little cute, shooting jumpers and messing around, but every time we got challenged we stepped up.''
The pace of the game changed drastically in the fourth quarter, with fouls whistled on nearly every possession. O'Neal missed two free throws with 6:12 left, and Kidd hit a long 2-pointer to pull the Nets to 81-77. O'Neal then made one of two, and a dunk by Van Horn off an offensive rebound got New Jersey within three.
Fox restored a five-point lead, Van Horn missed a 3 and O'Neal bulled over Jason Collins for a layup and a seven-point edge with four minutes left.
New Jersey was able to get within four points four times after that, but never closer.
In the early going, the Nets were as tentative and hesitant as the Lakers were relaxed and confident.
The Nets looked good for about 20 seconds in the first quarter, then the Lakers started looking like champs. An 8-0 run gave them a 10-4 lead, and Bryant dribbled around his back and fed O'Neal for a layup.
A 3-pointer by Fisher made it 19-8, causing the Nets to call a timeout and bringing the first chant of ''three-peat'' from the crowd. An obviously frustrated Martin fouled O'Neal by grabbing him around the waist late in the quarter as Los Angeles was on its way to a 29-14 lead after 12 minutes.
The Lakers' onslaught didn't cease in the early part of the second quarter, with O'Neal hitting a 9-foot turnaround, a dunk and a 6-foot fadeaway -- all on assists from Brian Shaw -- to take a 42-19 lead.
''We were a little nervous and everybody was a little tense to start the game, but that's a learning experience for a young team,'' Kidd said. ''We didn't give up. We knocked on the door but we couldn't come through.''
New Jersey responded with a 14-4 run and pulled to 48-36 at halftime, and the Nets had to be somewhat satisfied that they were at least within striking distance after what was probably their most miserable half of the postseason.
After Van Horn hit two 3-pointers early in the third, Bryant drove the lane and threw down a crowd-pleasing slam for a 56-44 lead. A 3-pointer by Kittles pulled the Nets to 60-56, but the Lakers quickly went back ahead by double digits.
Kidd scored on a drive but failed to complete the three-point play with 1:13 remaining, leaving New Jersey trailing 68-63, and the Lakers scored then final five points of the period to take a 72-63 lead into the fourth.
Notes: Magic Johnson, whose upcoming induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame was announced earlier Wednesday, received a huge standing ovation during a first-quarter timeout. ... Jackson said he foresees a role in this series for Mitch Richmond, who is in the Finals for the first time in his 13-year career. ''Mitch walked through the door Tuesday morning and said 'Don't forget about me, coach. I'll be ready to play in this one.' I said 'I won't,''' Jackson said. Richmond, however, did not play. ... Collins played eight minutes in the fourth quarter and fouled O'Neal five times.
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