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THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD
Jack McCallum
May 17, 2004
A Game 3 rout of San Antonio kept L.A.'s title hopes alive, but win or lose, this is the last stand for these Lakers
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May 17, 2004

The Center Cannot Hold

A Game 3 rout of San Antonio kept L.A.'s title hopes alive, but win or lose, this is the last stand for these Lakers

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As Shaquille O'Neal prepared to tool away from the Los Angeles Lakers' practice facility last Friday in his black Mercedes-Benz, he turned down the bass on his stereo to jumbo-jet decibel level, flashed a sly smile and said, "I want to show you something." From his wallet he pulled a badge and an official card identifying him as an officer of the L.A. Port Police. "I can make arrests," he said proudly.� O'Neal has been talking about his fascination with police work for several years now, leading some to wonder if he's as serious about being the Big Dominator as he is about being the Big Sipowicz. But that diversity of interests (let's not even bring up his rapping and acting) plays well in a city of multitaskers, where busboys are directors and waitresses are one audition from landing a TV series. ( O'Neal's teammate Rick Fox, of course, already had a role in a series, HBO's Oz.)

But no actor could ask for a better vehicle than the soap opera that is the Lakers. Love 'em or hate 'em, they make the NBA postseason a lot more interesting, and the prospect of their quick elimination seemed likely before Sunday. After two losses in San Antonio in which Officer Shaq and his crew were so bad in the fourth quarter that they couldn't get arrested, the purple-and-gold stormed back with a 105-81 victory in Game 3 at the Staples Center. Dismantled was the word Spurs coach Gregg Popovich used to describe what L.A. did in ending his team's 17-game winning streak.

Was that a tide-turning victory for L.A. on Sunday? Or was it an aberration, a tease to fans, coaches and the Lakers themselves, an overdue stand by a dysfunctional band of brothers that will almost certainly be, well, dismantled when the season is over? "Why haven't we played like that all season?" power forward Karl Malone mused. "Well, that's a mystery, isn't it?"

Mystery is the operative word for the Lakers. Jack Nicholson's favorite team is a living, breathing textbook on group dynamics, demonstrating that the addition of brilliant parts does not necessarily make a more brilliant whole. The feud between O'Neal and fellow superstar Kobe Bryant; the presumed lame-duck status of coach Phil Jackson, whose contract negotiations with team owner Jerry Buss, the father of his Significant Other, are on hold; the frustrations of Hall of Fame rentals Malone and Gary Payton—all have made for compelling subplots but not always compelling hoops. Whatever happens against the Spurs, the Lakers will surely not be together in this form next season. Here's the breakdown of their imminent breakup.

? Shaq has two more years and $58.3 million left on his contract. The idea of trading him was absurd in 2001-02, when the Lakers won their third straight title, but is not so absurd right now if L.A. can find a team willing and able to assume that financial burden. The possibility of the 32-year-old O'Neal's going to the Indiana Pacers (who need size) in a swap involving power forward Jermaine O'Neal (who's more mobile and seven years younger) has been grist for the sports-radio mill, though Lakers officials say such a deal has not been discussed.

It's anyone's guess how much Shaq's various foot and knee ailments have slowed him down, but he's shown signs of rebirth in this series, demonstrating why he should be, in Jackson's words, "our primary attack space." On Sunday he had 28 points, 15 rebounds, eight blocks and one inspirational belly flop for a loose ball that sent seismograph needles jumping throughout the Los Angeles basin. Outside the lines Shaq is also the symbol of the franchise, the warm and fuzzy, fan-friendly creature Bryant isn't. In all likelihood the 7'1", 340-pound flatfoot will remain on patrol.

PROBABILITY THAT SHAQ STAYS: 80%

? Bryant's double life as a superstar-defendant goes on. He was expected to fly to Colorado (and back each evening) for three days of hearings this week on his felony sexual assault case in an Eagle County courtroom.

Kobe has said he will test the free-agent market this summer while suggesting, from the other side of his mouth, that he'd also like to re-sign with the Lakers. Team sources say, though, that Bryant does not want to spend another season with O'Neal because he's tired of Shaq's sniping at him. ( O'Neal, it should be noted, may not like Bryant but appreciates his talent and has never said he doesn't want to play with him.) Far too often this season it's been either " Shaq's quarter" or "Kobe's quarter," one ceding the stage to the other with a let-him-take-it attitude. With a fast start vital in Game 3, O'Neal (10 points in the first quarter, four in the second) and Bryant (nine and six) neatly divided the load in the first half, when the Lakers raced out to a lead they would never relinquish.

Bryant has already made his feelings clear about Jackson—"I don't like him as a person, but I love him as a coach"—and one of the Zen Master's great disappointments is that he has been unable to build a rapport with Bryant the way he did with Michael Jordan. If it comes down to a choice between Bryant and Jackson, Buss has said that he'll go with Kobe, despite the relationship between the coach and Buss's daughter Jeanie, the team's vice president of business operations. But a more likely scenario is that Bryant (provided he is cleared of the charge in Colorado) will opt to sign elsewhere.

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