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SITTING NOT SO PRETTY

The person most shocked that the Lakers’ all-star point guard was on the bench during the final minutes of their playoff loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday was not that point guard.

“Nah, I wasn’t surprised,” Nick Van Exel said a day later. “That’s just the way [Del Harris] is.”

The person most shocked was the opposing point guard.

“I was surprised, I was very surprised,” said the Trail Blazers’ Damon Stoudamire. “Nick Van Exel has the experience. He is a big-game player. He has shown he can carry a team.”

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Not coincidentally, Stoudamire was also the person most relieved.

“I hope they take him out again in the next game,” he said.

Van Exel shrugged.

“This is just stupid,” he said. “This whole thing is just real stupid to me right now.”

And here we go again.

For a second consecutive spring, Nick Van Exel and Del Harris can’t seem to stay out of each other’s way.

Some NBA teams celebrate their playoff appearances with shaved heads. The Lakers are again doing it with butted heads, those belonging to the bench leader and floor leader.

Before the team practiced Wednesday at the Rose Garden in preparation for Game 4 tonight, there was less talk about the Lakers’ 2-1 series lead than about some second-guessing within.

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Thankfully for the Lakers, this is not last season. Last season was impolite. Last season was ugly.

Last season was Harris pulling Van Exel off the court in the first minutes of games and Van Exel mimicking his coach for a long time afterward.

This season is civil. This season the disagreement is not personal, but professional.

This season is strategy.

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So what would you have done?

With 11:13 remaining in Game 3 and the Lakers leading by five points, Stoudamire replaced Gary Grant. He was being guarded by Van Exel.

Stoudamire began penetrating. Around Van Exel. Again, and again, and again. Three times, he beat Van Exel for what amounted to six points.

But it was more than six points. It was the sort of chaos that can make the Trail Blazers look like a real team. In a matter of three minutes, it was a 14-3 Portland run.

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The game had turned. The Trail Blazers took a lead they never lost.

So what would you have done?

With 8:15 remaining, Harris pulled Van Exel and inserted playoff novice Derek Fisher.

The Trail Blazers cooled. The Lakers regrouped.

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With four minutes remaining, the Lakers had pulled within a point. Fisher had done his job, stopped the run.

But Van Exel remained on the bench. For the rest of the game, he remained there while Fisher threw up a six-foot airball, missed a layup, struggled to control a team that eventually lost by five.

Lost, with an all-star offense being directed by a hard-working kid who has never been in this position.

Lost, with a man some believe is their money player sitting on the bench.

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So what would you have done?

For Harris, there was no question.

“Nick had to come out, I felt the momentum had turned,” he said. “Then I think Derek Fisher brought us back to a point where he could win the game.

“Then at the end, I was not going to bring in a guy who had been sitting there a while.”

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For Van Exel, there were so many questions, he said he did not sleep much Tuesday night.

“Sometimes you can do so much for a team and you can be way up there . . . then you do one thing and everything is forgotten,” he said. “I hate that.”

Harris said this was a one-time deal.

“Nick played well. . . . I have no problem using him more in the next game,” he said.

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Van Exel implied it represented a pattern.

“I knew once I got taken out, my chances of getting back in the game were slim and none,” he said. “Del is the coach, he sticks by his own way, you just have to live with it.”

Harris, one of the game’s all-time numbers crunchers, is overwhelmingly supported by statistics.

A study of the first three playoff games reveals than when Stoudamire and Fisher are in at the same time, the Lakers have outscored the Trail Blazers, 154-131.

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When Stoudamire and Van Exel are in the game at the same time, the Trail Blazers outscore the Lakers, 117-116.

One might think Stoudamire wouldn’t mind stirring it up and getting Van Exel back in there. Except he was honest about both men’s capabilities.

“Derek is stronger defensively. . . . He’s a better defender,” Stoudamire said. “But in the long run, who can do more to help you win the game? That is something they have to think about.”

Van Exel is overwhelmingly supported by that theory.

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The story here has been that he must be the Lakers’ big-play guy in this playoffs, and I’m sticking to it.

He clinched the Game 1 victory with a three-point basket. With his combination of skill and nerve, there could more where that came from.

And unlike past years, there is no sense that he is in this only for himself.

“If we had won the game, everybody would have been happy and forgotten about it,” he said Wednesday. “I could score two points and we win and really, I don’t care.

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“But the way it turned out . . . I was very upset.”

He sighed again.

“I’ve just got to get beyond this right now,” he said.

There is a sense that both men need to get beyond it.

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Van Exel needs to dribble past that anger and into Game 4 with the sort of intensity that will force Harris to keep him on the court.

Harris needs to have a little more trust that his point guard can do exactly that.

Many talented people brought the Lakers to this point in the NBA playoffs, people who should be leaned on by a great team attempting to become a memorable one.

Del Harris is one of them.

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But so is Nick Van Exel.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

TOTAL POINTS FROM LAST THREE PLAYOFF GAMES WHEN:

NICK VAN EXEL GUARDS DAMON STOUDAMIRE

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LAKERS: 116

PORTLAND: 117

TOTAL POINTS FROM LAST THREE PLAYOFF GAMES WHEN:

DEREK FISHER GUARDS DAMON STOUDAMIRE

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LAKERS: 154

PORTLAND: 131


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