Byline: KEVIN MODESTI
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - When it was over, when it was done, it was hard to remember that this was ever in doubt, that the Lakers' third NBA championship in a row was anything but inevitable.
Kobe Bryant was holding the Lawrence O'Brien trophy overhead on a platform at mid-court at the Meadowlands arena and flashing three fingers, and all those anxious moments in Sacramento the week before last were vanishing into the swamp gas. Shaquille O'Neal was being introduced by the commissioner as the most valuable player of the finals, and the pain in the toes that threatened to trip up an entire team was giving way to a pleasant champagne tingle. Derek Fisher was leading the charge onto the court at the buzzer, and Lindsey Hunter was riding piggy-back on Samaki Walker, and everybody in purple and gold was hugging, and the notion that Shaq and Kobe's supporting cast was somehow deficient was as good as forgotten.
The Lakers were outclassing the New Jersey Nets in the last eight minutes to win 113-107 on Wednesday night and complete a 4-0 sweep, and the inexcusable regular-season losses to the Atlantas and Denvers and Golden States of the pro basketball world were reduced to so many unread footnotes.
It was always going to end up this way, wasn't it? The Lakers doing post-game interviews wearing leather Technicolor dream coats with ``Three-peat'' spelled out across the chests. The fans of a vanquished host filing out of their arena while, on the public-address system, the Traveling Wilburys sang about ``the end of the line.''
``Three in a row is unbelievable,'' Rick Fox was saying in his three-peat jacket. ``One was great ... then we got two ... three, we sweep. Just unbelievable.''
And, yet, as the seconds since the final buzzer turned into minutes and headed toward an hour, ``unbelievable'' hardly seemed the right word.
The Lakers silenced the Eastern Conference-champion Nets, and by extension, all the questions about how they got here.
In Sacramento, the basketball fans will be talking forever about bad officiating and conspiracies and the 3-2 lead that got away - but everywhere else, they'll know the truth. This was always meant to be.
The Lakers' biggest problem along the way was that sometimes, in the middle of the long regular-season haul, they played like they knew it.
It's true, somewhere in the middle of January I wrote that the three-peat was not inevitable. At the buzzer here Wednesday night, that sheet of newsprint instantly yellowed, dried up, crumbled and blew away.
When it's all over in June, who remembers January?
The last game played out like the season.
A quick start. A slip, a slide. A crossroads in the middle. A push toward the end. A stumble. A resolute and decisive capper.
Down the stretch, there was Bryant scoring three consecutive Lakers baskets - a right baseline jumper, a moving jumper, an impossible driving lay-up - to take a 92-91 lead to 104-95.
There was Fisher hitting a 2-pointer from the right corner after making a pair of 3-pointers, topping off a series in which he made two-thirds of his shots from the arc, just in case you'd thought 2001 was a mirage.
There was Robert Horry with two more 3s, because what would a big Lakers game be without Big Game Rob?
There was O'Neal, unstoppable for the rest of the league, uncontainable for the Nets, leading all of the Lakers scorers with 34 points, retaking charge of the offense from Bryant in the playoffs' last five games.
There was another opposing star trying to stop a tidal wave, Kenyon Martin coming out on fire, scoring 17 points in the first quarter on his way to 35, and finding that it wasn't nearly enough.
There was another losing coach talking about how, darn if his team didn't lapse into ``confusion'' at key moments in the make-or-break minutes while the Lakers squinted and focused on the prize.
With 44.2 seconds on the clock and the Nets within two 3-pointers of a tie, coach Byron Scott pulled Martin and Jason Kidd to allow the 19,000 fans to give the stars of the local season a standing ovation. The game wasn't over. Except, it was.
Considering all they'd been through, at the end, it was too easy.
Careful readers of history's fine print in the decades ahead will discover that there were moments of uncertainty on the Lakers' way to title No. 3.
That's hard to think about after 4-0.
The 14 banners on the page represent the NBA championships won by the Lakers. The past nine titles were won in Los Angeles, the first five in Minneapolis.
LOS ANGELES: 2002
LOS ANGELES: 2001
LOS ANGELES: 2000
LOS ANGELES: 1988
LOS ANGELES: 1987
LOS ANGELES: 1985
LOS ANGELES: 1982
LOS ANGELES: 1980
LOS ANGELES: 1972
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant hoists the NBA trophy after the Lakers victory over New Jersey in Game 4 of the NBA series.
John McCoy/Staff Photographer
14 TITLES (see text)