In fast break with past, Lakers fall back to pack

NBA: With everyone on the team pointing fingers, the three-time defending titlists slip toward the implausible: a non-playoff season.

January 29, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The basketball gurus have weighed in with their opinions about what has gone wrong this season for the Los Angeles Lakers. But has anyone asked a good family therapist?

Is it merely coincidence that the Lakers have become just another dysfunctional NBA team as their two superstars, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, have found a new level of personal bliss?

Shaq got married, Kobe became a daddy and the Lakers could be on the verge of a breakup. Or a breakdown.

What's next, Phil Jackson tying the knot with live-in girlfriend Jeannie Buss, the boss' daughter and Lakers team executive? How badly do the Lakers want LeBron James, anyway?

The plan to climb over .500 by the end of January has turned out to be, like many things in Hollywood, pure fantasy. The 19-23 Lakers, who play in Phoenix tonight and in Sacramento on Friday, are in trouble and have been since the season began.

The team that won its third straight NBA title last season is threatening to become the league's first defending champion since the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls to fail to make the playoffs.

"That may be what we need, for our back to be completely against the wall, instead of just close to it," veteran guard Derek Fisher said at practice earlier this week.

Jackson, whose Zen approach worked so well during the Bulls' and Lakers' championship seasons, has been left befuddled by his team's mostly inconsistent play this season.

"They seemed to know how to play together last year when they came back," Jackson said. "Two years ago, they started out fine. This year, they seem to have a difficult time playing together."

Yet, they and everyone else in the league assumed the Lakers would overcome their horrendous, 3-9 start once O'Neal, who missed the entire preseason and those first 12 games after undergoing late-summer toe surgery, played his way into shape.

When Los Angeles roared back from a 30-point, second-half deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks at the Staples Center on Dec. 6, everyone assumed the Lakers were back. They beat the Utah Jazz on the same court two nights later, but then lost three of the next four, the only win coming in overtime in Memphis.

"We weren't fooled by that," Jackson said of the now long-forgotten comeback win over the Mavericks. "We knew we could play for short periods of time."

Half-joking, Jackson added: "The fact is the games are too damn long. We need to play 40-minute games instead of 48."

Just when it looked as if they had gotten over the hump by winning five straight to get within two games of .500, Bryant became a first-time father. The Lakers have lost three of their past four games, including a rematch with last season's finals opponent, the New Jersey Nets.

It doesn't help that O'Neal and Bryant have played recently with nagging knee injuries. Or that the Lakers continue to maintain an uneasy truce among themselves. At various points this season, O'Neal and Bryant have not so quietly questioned their supporting cast's performance and perseverance.

The problems started when O'Neal chose to wait until September to have surgery, thus forcing the team to go to training camp without him.

"Shaquille not being there was a great hole in our game. It hurt the internal and the spiritual aspect of our team and the esprit de corps," Jackson said. "That's the thing that surprised us most and was the most challenging, how to build up that confidence and trust of how to play with each other and for each other."

That players such as veteran forwards Rick Fox and Robert Horry have struggled all season with their shooting and others, such as Fisher, Brian Shaw and emerging swingman Devean George, with their games, as well, has left the Lakers relying too much on their two superstars.

"The complementary players defer to Shaq and Kobe too much," said Tex Winter, the team's sagacious assistant coach. "[It's] maybe a lack of confidence in their own abilities."

It could also be age catching up with the Lakers. Four of their regulars are over 30 - O'Neal (31 in March), Horry (32), Fox (34 next month) and Shaw (37 next month). "Teams are constantly beating them down the floor," said one Western Conference scout.

Because other teams shaped their rosters around beating the Lakers, Jackson has had to throw new wrinkles in the offense and defense to keep his team from becoming too predictable.

It hasn't worked, and Jackson's biggest coaching flaw - allowing his players to work their way out of trouble rather than calling timeouts - has been exposed. If anything, he has had to coach this team too much.

"We've done more strategic coaching than just execution coaching, which I don't like to do, because I still think it's about turnovers, transition defense and stuff," Jackson said.

"I can still see that they're packing it in and throwing two and three bodies against Shaquille, playing Kobe every time he puts the ball on the floor. They're collapsing, so we've got to do different things.

"It's about us playing together and covering each other's backs."

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