- Chris Palmer, ESPN the Magazine
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DALLAS -- Don't think Nick Van Exel didn't notice because he did. When the San Antonio Spurs eliminated the Lakers on Thursday, it marked the first time since L.A. traded him four years ago that he has lasted longer than the Purple and Gold in the playoffs. That could also have something to do with the fact that this is only his second postseason tour since his messy departure.
Isn't it ironic that the Lakers replaced him in the starting lineup with the trigger-shy Derek Fisher because they wanted a lead guard who wouldn't keep the ball out of Kobe Bryant's hands? On Thursday, Fisher was the scapegoat thanks to his anemic six points in the Lakers' season-ending loss, while Van Exel exploded for 35 points to further establish himself as the most dangerous scorer remaining in the playoffs.
Plain and simple, Van Exel has been the Mavericks' best player against the Kings. He scored 23 in Saturday's 112-99 Game 7 win.
But, for Nick, these playoffs have been about more than putting the ball in the basket. They've also been about putting the demons of his past to rest permanently.
Van Exel has often, and rather unfairly, been seen as a head case who has a disruptive streak. It's easy for folks to recall the incident seven years ago when he shoved referee Ron Garretson and was suspensed for seven games and fined a then-record $25,000.
But Van Exel had it rough from the start. His entry into the league did not come without with a red flag. The Hornets passed on him when he missed a scheduled workout in Charlotte after he overslept and the plane took off without him. It didn't help that this was a guy nobody had ever heard of. But Jerry West has heard of everybody and drafted Van Exel with the 37th pick in the 1992 draft. Two years later, the Lakers missed the playoffs for the first time in almost 20 years with Van Exel starting at the point. Then things got rocky. Former Lakers coach Del Harris and Van Exel didn't see eye-to-eye because Van Exel loved to pull up from deep on the break and throw wrap-around, behind-the-back passes and Harris was more concerned with keeping Bryant, Eddie Jones and Shaquille O'Neal happy.
Hello Denver, where he and former Nuggets coach Mike D'Antoni weren't exactly ebony and ivory. Remember the team going on strike?
But that's the past. Van Exel is older, wiser now. And Harris is once again his coach (as an assistant under Don Nelson) and they get along fine. Van Exel gets more than his fair share of the calls from the officials, too.
Despite averaging 25.7 points per game on 53 percent shooting, Van Exel's best contribution in the postseason has been his team-first attitude. He could start just about anywhere. A guy named Raja Bell from Florida International who has less than two years experience starts over him and he hasn't complained.
"I give my team what they need off the bench," Van Exel said. "Coach Nelson wants a spark and that's what I give us."
Of the 87 regular-season and playoff games he's appeared in this year, he has started just once. When asked if they should have a recount concerning the Sixth Man Award, which went to the Kings' Bobby Jackson, Van Exel said no way. "I wasn't even close," he says.
It is not a stretch to say that, with the exception of Robert Horry, there is no one in the game I'd rather have take the last shot than Nick Van Exel. If it came down to Michael Jordan or Van Exel, I'd choose Nick.
No player in the NBA has hit more game-winners at the buzzer in the last five years than Van Exel. Remember his 35-foot turnaround at the buzzer to close the Boston Garden a few years back? He hit four or five of them just like that in anonymity in the half-empty Pepsi Center in Denver that no one even recalls.
Michael Finley has appeared a touch too hesitant as of late to take the last shot and Dirk Nowitzki just doesn't have the experience or the killer instinct to operate fearlessly in the clutch. But when you have someone who is completely unafraid to be the goat -- and at the same time possesses the best individual one-on-one moves on the floor -- you give him the ball and get out of his way. When triple zeros are fast approaching, he's colder than the Wisconsin winters he braved as a kid honing his awkward but effective J.
Van Exel has showed he can deliver under the bright lights of the NBA playoffs. In 1995, he torched the Sonics and first-team all-defense point guard Gary Payton with unbelievable shooting streaks. Eight years later and hardly a step slower, there is no Payton-like defender to offer Van Exel serious resistance. The Kings have talked about putting Doug Christie, their best defensive player, on Nick but that won't mean much if he's pulling up from 25 feet. No matter how many 3-pointers Van Exel hits, Christie won't come out and guard him because Van Exel will blow by Christie and use his passing skills to pick apart the Kings' D and get their big men in foul trouble. We're talking about a player who once recorded 23 assists in a game.
A victory over the Kings would bring a touch of bittersweet revenge for Van Exel. It will be payback to Chris Webber for Michigan knocking Van Exel's Cincinnati Bearcats out of the 1992 NCAA Final Four. But revenge and hard feelings aside, Van Exel is finally starting to get the recognition he deserves for so many lost years due to circumstance beyond his control.
When the Mavericks are playing the Spurs in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Monday and everyone is saying "If it wasn't for Nick Van Exel...," don't think he won't notice.
Chris Palmer is a senior reporter for ESPN The Magazine.
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