The Showdown, at least the one this week, had dissolved to where Shaquille O'Neal was guarding Charles Oakley and Elden Campbell was on Patrick Ewing for stretches late in the fourth quarter Tuesday night, leaving the game without the obligatory subplot.
That left The Moment for Nick Van Exel.
Protecting a four-point lead, Van Exel had the ball on the left side, dribbling the shot clock down. Way down. By the time it was at four, a couple of Lakers started calling to him from the bench at the other end. By the time it was at two, they were jumping off the bench.
When the clock hit one, Van Exel fired the three-pointer. When it came through the bottom of the net with 40 seconds left, the New York Knicks were finished, down by seven thanks to the clinching 28-footer and about to lose to the Lakers, 98-92, before 19,763 at Madison Square Garden.
O'Neal, playing much of the fourth quarter in foul trouble for the second time in three games, had 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks, while Ewing finished with 21 points and six rebounds. Van Exel, he got redemption.
The Laker point guard had missed 14 of 21 shots the first two games, including all five three-pointers. He was two for 10, and 0 for four from behind the arc, heading into the final minute against the Knicks.
So when the big moment came? The shot sure looked perfect to Van Exel when it left his hands.
"But most of the time they've been perfect and been banging in and out," he said.
The only dent this time was on the Knicks. They sealed off O'Neal inside and got wounded anyway.
"I'm sure it had something to do with getting Shaq the ball," Laker Coach Del Harris said later of the play, unsure exactly how it was supposed to unfold. "That didn't work out and Nick did what he does. You know, Nick does practice last-second shots in practice."
This one, in a game, gave the Lakers a 93-86 lead. The Knicks called timeout, then another when Larry Johnson, who had missed two key free throws before Van Exel's big basket, couldn't get the ball in from the sideline. Before he could try again, the Lakers took one. When play finally resumed, the once-charged crowd waiting for a reason to stay to the end, New York got two shots, but neither drew iron, Ewing firing an airball and Eddie Jones deflecting John Starks' three-pointer with about 25 seconds to play.
The Knicks were forced to foul, and the Lakers converted five of their last six free throws, four by Van Exel as he rallied to finish with 13 points, along with eight assists.
"I feel great about it," Harris said. "About what the guys did, about winning here. It's special to win here. New York is special for basketball and you want to come here and do well.
"I was lamenting we had to come so early because we didn't have our game together. It all can change. We played a wonderful game and we needed a wonderful game to win it.
"We were playing good quarters [the first two outings]. Tonight was the first time we played a game."
Added Van Exel: "It's a big win for us--confidence-wise, momentum-wise--early in the season."
It was also only the second victory for O'Neal here in four-plus seasons as a pro, not counting a victory by the Orlando Magic last spring he missed while on a leave after the death of his grandmother. So it was also significant in a personal way.
It came five days before he will face Atlanta's Dikembe Mutombo at the Forum, intriguing because Mutombo is such a factor on defense, and a week before the next major matchup, with Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston, a center summit at the Summit. He probably won't face David Robinson the next day in San Antonio, because Robinson has a strained back.
Ewing-O'Neal wasn't bad theater for starters. The New York tabloids came in force, the others too, resulting in about 250 credentials being issued, 100 more than normal. The crowd was energized. Harris bathed in every moment of it.
The big numbers, especially from O'Neal, followed. The centers, and centers of attention, did not disappoint, even if they didn't go head-to-head every trip down.
"I'm going to miss playing against Pat," O'Neal said. "But now I have to face David four times and face Hakeem four times."
Some trade-off. "Who knows?" Ewing said. "We might wind up playing him in the finals."
* CLIPPERS WIN: Stanley Roberts has big night off bench against Nuggets. C4.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A Season of Expectations
The Lakers acquired nine new players this season, including Shaquille O'Neal and his $120-million contract. In turn, with big acquisitions come big expectations. Throughout the season, The Times will monitor O'Neal's numbers along with how the team compares to some of the best Laker teams in history.
GAME 3 OF 82
* Record: 3-0
* Standing: 1st place Western Division
1996-97 LAKERS VS. THE BEST LAKER TEAMS
Year Gm. 3 Overall 1987-88 3-0 62-20 1986-87 2-1 65-17 1984-85 1-2 62-20 1979-80 2-1 60-22 1971-72 3-0 69-13
Note: The five teams above all won NBA championships
THE SHAQ SCOREBOARD
Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 41 .522 .400 13 5 26
1996-97 Season Averages:
Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 39.0 .642 .552 15.3 3.3 28.0
1995-96 Season Averages:
Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 36.0 .573 .487 11.0 2.12 26.6
* Sunday's salary: $130,658.53
* Season Totals: $391,975.59
* FACTOID: In game three of the 1971-72 season, Wilt Chamberlain missed 11 of 13 free-throw attempts, but scored 20 points with 23 rebounds and Gail Goodrich had 24 points as the Lakers defeated Buffalo, 123-106.