Sure, it’s easy to rag on the Nets—and by extension the NBA’s whole Eastern Conference—for a series in which New Jersey led for about 42 meaningful seconds through the first three games. But let’s give the Lakers their props. The conventional wisdom is that this team wasn’t built, it was born—a man mountain of a center coupled with a funkadelic jump-out-of-the-gym two guard. But Shaq is quietly showing that he’s become a mental giant, too. In Game Two, when the Nets tried to sag on him, he showed his full arsenal of finely honed post moves, ran the floor at opportune moments, and kicked out Bill Walton-style for the open jumper. He’s also picking his spots on defense, realizing that trading an easy Todd McCullough basket for a cheap foul is a good deal for the Lakers. And have you noticed that Hack-a-Shaq is about as fashionable as a Nader for President bumper sticker? That’s because O’Neal has made himself into a free-throw shooter, hitting a very respectable 67 percent through the playoffs. As for Kobe, my, how he’s grown. Remember, it was only three years ago when Shaq stood up in a team meeting and said, “Kobe’s playing too selfishly for us to win.” The Steak Man has shown a near Jordan-esque ability to get his shot off (he’s averaging 27 a game on 54 percent shooting in the finals). But there’s also been more than a little Magic in his play both with and without the ball, as he wisely defers to Shaq and keeps role players like Devean George and Robert Horry involved in the offense. Which raises the magic question of what comes after three-peat? Four-play? —Allen St. John


Against the Detroit Shock last Wednesday, the Liberty squeaked out a 60-59 victory when Vickie Johnson sank two free throws with 14.9 seconds left to play. In the embarrassing first half—”our worst ever,” according to coach Richie Adubato—New York shot a dismal 20 percent, compared with 40 percent for Detroit, which was led by rookie superstar Swin Cash, who bagged 15 points by game’s end. The Liberty bested the Shock again in Detroit on Sunday, 70-63, in another second-half comeback. But the most important stat in this rising rivalry may be Liberty 151, Shock 127—the combined ages of each team’s starting lineup. Starters for Detroit are 23, 23, 24, 28, and 29, averaging out to 25.4, while New York takes the floor with women aged 25, 28, 30, 32, and 36, averaging out to 30.2. Arguably it’s a more significant gap than, say, the 6-2 Cash’s advantage over 5-10 Crystal Robinson, who had to scramble to guard her.

The Liberty looked pooped on Wednesday. As Johnson admitted, “We had no legs. Everyone took the ball to the basket because we had no outside jump shots.” Adubato added, “It seemed like we were running with galoshes on.” But what New York lacked in spryness they made up for in experience. Only old hands like Johnson, Robinson, Sue Wicks, and Teresa Weatherspoon could, from the deepest doldrums, pull out a relentless press in the second half, and that, said Johnson, rattled the Shock. “If they had more veterans, they would have won,” she said. Trouble is, the Shock keep racking up more experience while the Liberty have no choice but to keep getting older.

One equalizer, tiring out players of all ages, is the league’s brutal travel schedule, long a bone of contention in the WNBA. Teams travel on commercial flights while NBA charters stay grounded. With tightened security at airports since 9-11, grueling back-to-back road games are taking an even greater toll. Shock coach Greg Williams noted that his squad would have to leave for the airport at 4:30 in the morning last Thursday and then play that evening. Adubato pointed out that some airlines won’t even check in the team as a group. “We get in line like everybody else,” he said. —Alisa Solomon


While the Mets’ offensive woes continue—through June 9, Jeromy Burnitz and Mo Vaughn had combined for 107 strikeouts and only 78 hits in 369 at-bats, a combined batting average of .211—at least Roberto Alomar has shown signs of life. Interleague play couldn’t have come at a better time as a confidence booster for Alomar, who spent the last 11 years in the American League and has been a good advertisement for the adage that it’s far easier for pitchers to change leagues than hitters—especially a switch-hitter like Alomar. (Through last Sunday, Alomar was at .307 versus righties, close to his lifetime .319 mark, but only .200 against lefties, far off his .276 career average.)

Another factor affecting Alomar is his ever shifting spot in the batting order. While Alomar likes leading off, Bobby Valentine has used him in the 1, 2, and 3 holes, since, with the Mets’ offense performing so poorly, the manager can’t afford to waste a proven run-producer and good-average hitter in the leadoff spot. When the topic comes up, Valentine usually trots out his stock answer that lineup positions are overrated, that “every inning has a leadoff hitter.” But there does seems to be some tension about it between manager and player. “This is a big ballpark, especially in the alleys,” Alomar told us recently when we asked him about hitting at Shea. When we mentioned ballparks in general as factors in hitting to Valentine, the Mets manager brusquely shrugged it off: “It’s tough enough hitting major league pitching. Worrying about a ballpark only compounds things.” —Billy Altman