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PICK NICK

Final seconds, score tied, Lakers have possession.

Who gets the ball?

All these complicated questions about our complicated basketball team come down to only one.

Who gets the ball?

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Who makes the play that wins the playoff game?

Beginning tonight against Portland, and for much of the next two months, there will be evenings when a dozen interesting moments are whittled to one that defines.

In the Lakers’ huddle during the final timeout, they will have to decide.

Who owns that moment?

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Who gets the ball?

The teams filling up most of the space between the Lakers and a championship, they have somebody.

In Utah, Karl Malone gets the ball. In Seattle, Gary Payton gets the ball. In Chicago, you-know-who gets the ball.

Here? It’s who-knows-who.

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It is not Shaquille O’Neal.

To write that the team’s highest-paid player cannot also be its money player seems as absurd as hearing Chick Hearn scream for the Lakers not to pass to Shaq in the final minutes.

But it is true.

Any among the nearly 17,000 Forum fans who groaned loudly when O’Neal missed the late free throw that could have beaten the SuperSonics earlier this year and given the Lakers home-court advantage . . . they understand.

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It also is not Eddie Jones.

The first rule about getting the ball is, you have to want the ball. Is anybody in this town really convinced that in the final ticks of deciding games, despite 47 previous minutes of brilliance, Jones wants the ball?

And no, it is not Kobe Bryant.

He is the opposite of Eddie Jones. He wants the ball. He walks to the balcony of his Pacific Palisades home in the middle of the night, stares down at all the lights, dreams of getting the ball.

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But he’s not old enough to know what to do with it.

You have to love Kobe early, in the air, spinning and soaring and sparking the Lakers on a second-quarter run.

But it is still difficult to love him late, with his potential to spin and soar and spark the ball off the top of the backboard or into the seats.

Last year, Del Harris loved him late, and the Lakers exited the playoffs early. Bryant has matured in many ways, but can we hold off on burdening him with the future of the franchise until he’s, say, 20?

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Which reduces this problem to where one suspects a certain grinning backup point guard always knew it would be.

Nick Van Exel must get the ball.

If the Lakers are going to win the NBA championship, it’s going to have to come from his hands.

He is going to have to create the play or make the play.

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He’s the only one who’s experienced enough, versatile enough, brash enough.

Last week in this space, the question was asked, is he mature enough?

In the season finale against the Utah Jazz, he proved that perhaps, finally, he is.

In his first appearance after a two-game suspension for shoving San Antonio’s Monty Williams, he was taunted, goaded and pressured by a team that obviously thought he would fight his way into more detention.

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He didn’t.

His anger was directed at teammates who were out of position on backdoor cuts. His energy was poured into running around picks, throwing down open jumpers.

When he waved his fists, it was to direct one of the many quaint little scoring plays that helped the Lakers out-jazz the Jazz.

“I’ve learned that you can’t help the team if you’re not on the court,” he said, shrugging, as if embarrassed not to have understood something simple.

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His most important moment occurred just after he had entered the game late in the first quarter to a huge ovation--"One of these days, those people are just gonna say, ‘Ah, forget him, boo,’ ” he said with a smile.

Howard Eisley fouled him hard under the basket, bumped him as he was getting up, said something.

Van Exel walked away quickly, stopped, took a deep breath, then turned and waved his hand at Eisley as if to say, ‘You’re not worth it.’

It seems he finally understands just what is worth it.

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“I’ve been through all this,” he said. “I’m more comfortable with all of it. I know people will test us. I know I have to be strong mentally. I think I have learned that.”

One guesses that coming off the bench--his decision, not Harris'--also helps.

Van Exel says he does not want to disrupt the flow developed in his injury-caused absence by Derek Fisher.

What he does not say--or need to say--is that he has always been better as an alley fighter, a back-room brawler.

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He is the kind who would rather surprise people on the undercard than live up to their expectations in the main event.

As a sub, he seems far more at home than as a starter. As a sub, he is one fine sucker punch.

“It becomes a different team when I’m in there, and that helps us,” he said.

Besides, he is still on the court at the end, when the Lakers will need him most.

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“I’m ready for that,” he said.

Nick Van Exel must get the ball.

The futures of his season, his coach, even himself, depend on it.

He was asked the other day about Harris’ claim--later disputed by the league--that the team had won the Pacific Division co-championship.

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“That’s important to Del, he likes it, but . . . " Van Exel said. “I want to win a championship. The only thing I see hanging in this arena are jerseys and championship banners.

“I want one of those banners.”

Who knows? In this league, the road from pariah to savior is lined with them.


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