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Pro Basketball

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The youthful Lakers look like world-beaters at times, but they still make careless mistakes that create doubt about whether they're ready for a title run

by Phil Taylor

Posted: Wed March 4, 1998

Shaquille O'Neal may look intimidating, but it turns out he's really quite user-friendly. If you don't believe it, the next time you're out in cyberspace, stop in at Shaq World, O'Neal's Web site (www.shaq.com), which is designed for the Internet-savvy fan who believes there is no such thing as too many Shaq facts. You can peruse Shaq News, analyze Shaq Stats or have a Shaq Chat, and, most remarkably, you can Watch Shaq Grow. A click of your mouse will bring to the screen a baby picture of O'Neal, which will transform seamlessly into a series of other Shaq photos, each one with O'Neal slightly older than the one before, allowing him to morph in a matter of seconds from an infant into the 315-pound Los Angeles Lakers center he is today.

  LAKERS4.JPG (27k)
Bryant (8) has struggled on offense since drawing more attention from defenses.    (David E. Klutho)
In the real world, however, the maturation process isn't nearly so fast or easy, as O'Neal and his teammates are discovering. The youthful Lakers—everyone on the L.A. roster is under 30, and the Lakers' average age is 27.8—have looked like championship material at times, but they've seemed more like babes in the woods at others. So far their wealth of talent has been enough to overcome their erratic nature; even after a 101-89 loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday they were 39-17 and in second place in the Pacific Division. But the shortcomings that have bedeviled Los Angeles, including lackluster defense and poor execution near the end of close games, will prove fatal if they aren't eradicated before the playoffs. "We've had a couple of lapses, and we've also had some injuries," says forward Rick Fox. "It seems like every time we've slipped a little and the criticism has started, we've recovered and gotten back to playing good basketball. That's a good sign, and maybe we've learned a few things along the way."

That's the good spin. The bad spin is that roughly two thirds of the way into the season not even the Lakers know how good they are. Are they the team that started 11-0? Or are they the club that through Sunday had been a less impressive 28-17 since and had fallen 4 1/2 games behind the Seattle SuperSonics in the Pacific? Are they the team that sent four players, O'Neal and guards Kobe Bryant, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel, to the All-Star Game? Or are they the club that lost five of its first seven games after the All-Star break? Are they the team that talked about a renewed commitment to defense after holding the Milwaukee Bucks, the Indiana Pacers and the Minnesota Timberwolves to 81, 89 and 91 points, respectively, in three straight road wins last week? Or are they the club that backed up that talk by surrendering 101 points to the badly undermanned Knicks, who coming in had cracked the 100-point barrier only 13 times in 55 games this season?

LAKERS5.JPG (30k)
After winning three straight games, Jones and Co. were brought down to earth by Larry Johnson and the Knicks.    (Manny Millan)
 
The Lakers aren't overly concerned about their ups and downs—"We're just trying to keep you guys off balance," says forward Robert Horry, referring to the media—but they realize they have a lot of work to do before they're ready to face more experienced teams like the Sonics and the Utah Jazz in the postseason. "I really think it's hard for anyone to judge us, it's hard even for us to judge ourselves, because we're not completely healthy," Horry says. "When we have our full team on the floor, that's when we'll find out where we are in terms of being ready for the playoffs."

Los Angeles won't be at full strength until at least mid-March, when Van Exel, who has been out since Feb. 18, is scheduled to return from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Doctors removed a bone chip and scar tissue from the back of his kneecap that had been causing a clicking sensation in the joint. Although the procedure alleviated Van Exel's discomfort, nothing can be done for the condition, which means he will have to play with it for the rest of his career. Add that to the chronic soreness in his other knee that Van Exel has dealt with for the last two seasons, and it's clear that coach Del Harris will have to apportion Van Exel's minutes carefully.

Van Exel isn't the only Laker who's hurting. Horry has been playing with a groin injury, and O'Neal occasionally winces from a lingering strain of an abdominal muscle, an injury that has dogged him since training camp in October and has caused him to miss 21 games. On the other hand, Bryant, the 19-year-old prodigy and media darling, is in fine fettle; it's his game that isn't. He admitted to being fatigued after the All-Star weekend, during which he fulfilled interview requests from everyone from MTV to Meet the Press. He also has had to cope with the first rumblings of an anti-Kobe backlash, with Jazz forward Karl Malone criticizing him for having hogged the ball in the All-Star Game. Then there's the increased attention he's getting from defenses now that he has established himself as an explosive threat off the bench. "Early in the season, if I got by one guy, I was free," Bryant says. "Not anymore."

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All of those factors seem to have combined to send him into the first slump of his two-year career. He has struggled since the break, particularly last week, when he went 3 for 12, 1 for 8, 4 for 12 and 4 for 15 from the field, humbling numbers for a player who has known few hard times on a basketball court. After the loss to New York he said the last time he had been this frustrated by his play was when he was a junior in high school, which might sound like a long time ago until you remember that Bryant was harkening all the way back to 1995.

However, even these struggles can't dampen Bryant's good spirits. His popularity among fans stems not just from his talent but also from the way he appears at all times to be a teenager enjoying the ride, living out a grand experiment. "This is the toughest stretch I've ever gone through," he said last week. "I'm hating it, but I'm loving it. It's part of the challenge, it's part of the fun. Am I pressing? Maybe. That's something I'll have to think about. I want to go through periods when I'm struggling, because that's when you learn, and the more you learn, the better you get."

With Van Exel out, Bryant has become the backup point guard as well as the backup shooting guard, but the biggest burden at the point has fallen on second-year man Derek Fisher, a fearless tree stump of a guy from Arkansas-Little Rock. The 6'1", 200-pound Fisher, chosen by L.A. with the 24th pick in the 1996 draft, has turned into another example of executive vice president Jerry West's ability to find hidden talent.

Continued

Issue date: March 9, 1998



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