Lakers still struggling to get their stars aligned

Injuries, distractions have tempered hot start

Pro Basketball

February 28, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES - Shaquille O'Neal has called himself many things during the course of his stay in the pivot for the Los Angeles Lakers, from the "Big Aristotle" for his ability to reinvent himself to the "Big Homage," as in his game is a tribute to great centers of the past.

These days, the 7-foot-1 center might just as well call himself the "Big Buddha" for his lack of panic over where the Lakers are these days. Los Angeles is in second place in the Pacific Division and fifth overall in the NBA's Western Conference, not where everyone thought the team would be, namely cruising to a championship.

So, while the rest of the world looks at the Lakers and wonders, "What's wrong?" O'Neal and the Lakers are saying, "Why worry?"

"We know how to get it done," O'Neal said during All-Star weekend two weeks ago. "With all the soap-operaness that we go through, we know how to get it done. Because it's all about playing. It's not about what he said, or he said. It's all about, if a guy's open, get him the ball, get a good shot, play good defense and do that."

Heading into today's game at MCI Center against the Washington Wizards, the Lakers have taken a couple of pages out of some soap operas shot across town from Staples Center.

There is the obvious General Hospital analogy as O'Neal, guard Kobe Bryant, forwards Karl Malone, Rick Fox and Horace Grant have all spent significant time out of the lineup nursing various ailments.

Malone, who joined the Lakers with point guard Gary Payton as high-profile free agents, has missed more than two months with a knee injury, the first time he has missed an extended period of time in his 19-year career.

Malone is expected back sometime in March, but the combined absences have slowed the 18-3 roll the Lakers opened the season with, as only Payton and reserve point guard Derek Fisher have been present all year.

"It's just about us being healthy," said Bryant, who has battled finger and shoulder injuries this year. "We started with some really bad breaks the first half of the season, with guys going down with injuries. Until that point, we had been playing extremely well. When we get everybody back and healthy on the floor, we'll get Karl back shortly hopefully, we'll get on a streak."

And then there's the Young and the Restless saga the Lakers have endured.

Add the continued sniping between O'Neal and Bryant over control of the team, the drama over sexual assault charges hanging over Bryant in Colorado from an offseason incident, and recent chatter over whether coach Phil Jackson will return to the club next year, and you've got theater of the highest quality the NBA can offer.

Already shaken by owner Jerry Buss' decision to cut off negotiations with Jackson, the franchise was rocked during All-Star week by a story that Bryant had told his teammates that he would not only opt out of the final year of his contract at the end of the year - as he had said he would do - but would leave the Lakers as well, a decision Bryant said he hasn't reached yet.

"You have to be able to kind of block things out, things that are going on around you," Bryant said during All-Star weekend. "That's why I can sit here in front of you guys now and be calm - because sometimes there's just a lot that goes on around you and you just have to remain calm."

Still, with roughly two months to go in the regular season, if the Lakers are in trouble, they haven't read the memo. Los Angeles won its first five games after the All-Star break before Thursday's 103-101 home loss to Sacramento, the team it trails by six games in the Pacific Division.

Still, the Lakers (36-20) have won seven of their past nine games as they begin a four-game-in-five-day swing to Washington, New Jersey, Atlanta and Houston.

Chalk up their confidence to the bravado of having won three of the past four NBA titles, or to having four future Hall of Fame players in their stable or just call it supreme arrogance.

Whatever you call it, know that the Lakers believe that all the tumult and turmoil that has come before this year is just a prelude to another championship romp.

"I was telling someone a month ago that compared to other teams in the league, we have to have, when you think about NBA experience and years and games and playoff games and Finals games and coaches, the most NBA experience of any team ever, with maybe the exception of the Celtics or the Lakers of years past," said Fisher.

"So, if there's any team that structurally, mentally, spiritually, psychologically can, with all the uncanny things going on, still figure out a way to go out and be the best team in the game, I think we have that team."

The Lakers will be at Staples Center for 13 of their last 16 games, which includes a "road" game against the Clippers, and will have only four road games the rest of the way against teams with winning records.

But what may be even better for the Lakers than the powder puff schedule is that the rest of the NBA knows what's coming and may be powerless to stop it.

"I think everybody knows, everyone in our league that is knowledgeable knows that at the beginning of the year, they were 18-3 when they had everybody together," said Minnesota coach Flip Saunders. "They have had a lot of injuries that they have gone through and they were dealing with a lot of different situations when the season began. If they can get everyone healthy and get everyone back together, they are going to make a legitimate run."

Wizards today

Opponent: Los Angeles Lakers

Site: MCI Center, Washington

Time: 3:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WTEM (980 AM)

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