O'Neal Issues a Challenge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It got pretty ugly between Shaquille O'Neal and Dikembe Mutombo in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Sunday.

O'Neal lashed out. Mutombo stood his ground. O'Neal took his best shot. Mutombo fired back.

And that was just in the interview room after the Lakers had hung on to beat the 76ers, 96-91.

The Lakers won despite O'Neal fouling out with 2:21 to play and his team clinging to an 86-84 lead.

Laker Coach Phil Jackson called his players together as O'Neal headed for the bench and told them, "Go out there and play to win. Don't play not to lose."

O'Neal should be used to early exits. It was the eighth time he has fouled out this season, six of those coming in the regular season. He also fouled out against the Sacramento Kings earlier in the postseason.

But this time, after being called four times for offensive fouls, after bumping into Mutombo and watching the 76er center jerk backward as if he had been shot, O'Neal was fuming.

"I didn't think the best defensive player in the game would be flopping like that," O'Neal said of Mutombo, who was voted the league's defensive award this season. "It's a shame that the referees buy into that. I wish he'd stand up and play me like a man instead of flopping and crying every time I back him down. It's just a shame."

And just to make sure everyone knew his words were calculated to deliver a message, O'Neal added, "And you can quote me on that. And underline it three times."

O'Neal also wanted to make sure everyone knew he felt the behavior was one-sided.

"We have a very tough team," he said. "We play hard, we play good, clean basketball, we play good defense. There's no floppers on our team."

Once more, in case anybody missed it, O'Neal punctated his remarks as he exited the interview room by adding, "Remember what I said."

In case anybody failed to do so, Laker forward Rick Fox echoed his teammate.

"I think Mutombo did a good job of flopping," Fox said. "You would have to to fool a pretty good group of refs.

"But that's part of the game. I think Vlade [Divac of the Kings] is also a pretty good flopper, and we have a few of our own.

"I guess if Mutombo feels he can't beat Shaq, he has to find other ways. With all that flopping, maybe he should be traded to L.A. and we can get him a few acting gigs on the side."

The humor was lost on Mutombo, who acted as if O'Neal's remarks hurt as much as the Laker center's sharp-edged elbows.

"I don't know how to respond," Mutombo said. "You know I have a lot of respect for Shaquille O'Neal. But for him, coming up and trying to accuse me of something, I think it's so ridiculous.

"If you want to watch the game and . . . the entire NBA series, you can tell the team that's been doing it to the rest of the guys in the league. I think the big difference is, I'm just not one of them. I think that's why he said what he had to say.

"I think he was trying to go an extra step and I think that's why the referee was paying more attention to what he was trying to do. Otherwise, they would let him play with the same thing he's been doing all year long.

"I'm not afraid of him. He's a good friend of mine. I have a lot of respect for him, as he has a lot of respect for me. But we are just in a war right now."

A war that resumes Wednesday night.

Don't look for either side to stop taking their shots, both on the court and off.

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