But the most pronounced difference in O'Neal's—and L.A.'s—game this season is on defense. Until this year O'Neal hadn't averaged more than three blocks since his rookie season, having swatted a career-low 1.67 a game in 1998-99. His renewed propensity for rejecting shots has helped make his teammates better defenders. The Lakers gave up 96.0 points per game last year, which ranked them 25th in the league. This season, even as rules changes have increased scoring, they're allowing 90.4—fifth best. "We can really be aggressive knowing Shaq's back there to clean up anything that gets by us," says Rice, L.A.'s sharpshooting small forward. "We can take things from teams on the perimeter and force them to go into the lane knowing the big fella will be there for us."
There are three reasons for O'Neal's surge in swats: His nagging injuries have fully healed, he has trimmed down (to close to his listed weight of 315), and Jackson has demanded it of him. Jackson has an air of authority that his predecessors with the Lakers, Del Harris and Kurt Rambis, didn't; it's apparent that O'Neal is playing for the first coach who has commanded his complete respect. He has said that Jackson reminds him of his stepfather, Phil Harrison, a retired Army sergeant, in the discipline he imposes. Jackson's six championships with the Bulls don't hurt, either. "I went out to see him in Montana before the season, and I saw the sun hitting all those trophies," says O'Neal. "It was like, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling. When a man with his track record asks you to do something, you do it."
In a way, the Lakers' defensive improvement leaves no doubt that they didn't come close to getting the most out of their talent in the past. There is no equivalent to the triangle on defense, no new system or philosophy. Jackson realizes he doesn't have the kind of athletes to apply the perimeter pressure that his Bulls could. In fact, the Lakers don't have great individual defenders—they traded their only exceptional one, forward Eddie Jones, to get Rice from the Charlotte Hornets last season—though adding the savvy of forward A.C. Green and guard Ron Harper has helped their team D. "There's no big secret to how we've done it," says Bryant. "We're just working harder. We're quicker to rotate when someone gets beat. We fight through screens a little harder."
Jackson hasn't used any of his favorite stratagems for manipulating players that he employed in his days with tine Bulls. "He hasn't handed out books for the players to read or spliced scenes from movies into the game films," says Bryant. Jackson doesn't need those tricks, at least not yet, because he can motivate his team by just walking into the locker room. On Jan. 4, after the Lakers allowed the Clippers to score 61 points in the first half, Jackson gave his team a brief but stern address. "I told them I was looking for players interested in investing the game with some emotion and energy," he says. Left unsaid, but understood, was that he would be willing to sit the starters if they didn't prove to be those players. The Lakers responded by limiting the Clippers to 37 second-half points and winning 122-98.
"When Phil Jackson tells you to defend the pick-and-roll a certain way, you do it because he's proven he knows what he's talking about, and you know you'll be sitting next to him if you don't do it that way," says O'Neal. "Guys know that listening to him could get us over the hump. If we don't win now, we won't have any excuses."
The prime objective for Jackson has been to run a tighter ship. He set the tone early by saying that O'Neal, who reported to camp a good 15 pounds over his listed weight, needed to be lighter and in better condition. Jackson has soft-pedaled the issue since, but it is probably no coincidence that he has been giving O'Neal heavy minutes (39.1 a game) to help him shed pounds. That approach has paid off, though the added playing time for O'Neal also points up one of the Lakers' weaknesses—they lack a genuine power forward or backup center to help him shoulder the burden on the boards. Green and Robert Horry have done their best, but Green is 36, and Horry is a small forward playing out of position.
An even bigger trouble spot may be the unresolved status of Rice. He can become a free agent at the end of the season, and Lakers management has shown no willingness to give him the maximum contract, which starts at $14 million per for a player with his years of service. Sources close to Rice say they would not be surprised to see a trade before the Feb. 24 deadline, and Jackson refuses to rule one out. Rumors abound involving forwards R.J. Brown of the Heat, Juwan Howard of the Washington Wizards and Tracy Mc-Grady of the Toronto Raptors. Rice, who has only sporadically looked comfortable in the triangle offense, politely declines to discuss his future, but the Lakers have to decide to take one of two risks: Either tinker with a successful lineup and trade Rice, or keep him for the rest of the season and hope his performance isn't affected by the knowledge that the team doesn't want to re-sign him.
Maybe O'Neal, whose largesse is legendary, can come up with a little bauble to keep Rice's spirits up. He did, after all, give backup point guard Derek Fisher a $5,000 Rolex watch as his secret Santa gift last month, and when O'Neal found out that equipment manager Rudy Garciduenas was driving an old pickup truck last season, he bought him a new one, which Garciduenas adorned with the vanity license plate THNX SHAQ. The best news for the Lakers is that they have three months to pave over potential potholes before the playoffs start. "May and June are the only months that matter," says O'Neal.
Everything else is just numbers, baby.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]