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Lakers Still Kidding Around

Pro basketball: Bryant becomes youngest player in NBA history as they struggle before beating Timberwolves, 91-85, at Forum.

November 04, 1996|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kids say the darndest things.

"We can't be almost losing to a team like Minnesota if we want to accomplish what we want to accomplish," one of them, Kobe Bryant, was saying late Sunday night after the Lakers almost lost to the Timberwolves.

In the end, turning up the intensity in the second half, and with Shaquille O'Neal's hand on the knob, the Lakers scored a 91-85 victory before 15,407 at the Forum with fans who have been a lot like the team--interested in some games and largely staying away from others.

The perfect match.

"The crowd was flat, the players were flat," Coach Del Harris said after the Lakers opened 2-0 for the first time since 1987-88. "At halftime, everybody warmed up. We realized this was going to be a struggle. The crowd got into it, and the players did too."

O'Neal was already sweltering by intermission--17 points, 13 rebounds--so he decided to keep going until heat prostration. He finished with 35 points, 19 rebounds and three blocked shots, got help from the 13 points and 11 assists by Nick Van Exel, then knew enough to give thanks for the opponent. On a different night, it could have been a different result.

"We just have to get up for lesser teams," O'Neal said.

Added Eddie Jones: "We came out there and we thought we already had the game won."

Bryant moved into the history books by playing in a regular-season game at the age of 18 years, two months and 11 days, beating the record of 18 years, four months by Philadelphia's Stanley Brown in 1947. Bill Willoughby, who would eventually play for Harris, debuted at 18 years, five months on Oct. 23, 1975, the same night Darryl Dawkins first appeared at 18 years, nine months.

Bryant's time at the top, however, will be considerably shorter than his predecessor. Jermaine O'Neal of the Trail Blazers, no relation to Shaquille, is about seven weeks youngerthan the Laker swingman, but O'Neal opened the season on the injured list because of a bruised knee.

"I guess it's pretty nice because a lot of guys come into the NBA," Bryant said. "It's pretty cool. It'll be neat one day to sit with my grandkids and tell them I was the youngest player in NBA history. By then, somebody may be coming out of middle school."

Left to do the teen scene alone because Stephon Marbury, Minnesota's 19-year-old point guard, was at home nursing a sprained ankle, Bryant got a roar from the crowd merely for preparing to check in, the cheers coming when he stood to take off his sweats.

He entered at the next stoppage, with 2:58 remaining in the first quarter, earning a second ovation.

Two possessions later, he dribbled into a crowd, got caught with nowhere to go, and traveled.

Two possessions after that, his jumper from the left side was tipped by Cherokee Parks, falling well short of the basket.

Bryant finished the quarter, started the second, then came out with 8:36 left in the half.

And that was it for the night, for the pro debut: six minutes, one miss, one rebound, one foul, one turnover and one block.

"It's one of those things," Harris said. "He's just as likely to have a big game next time."

It was also kind of like the Lakers the entire first half. Laboring for shots and to avoid turnovers for the second game in a row, they trailed by as many as 15 points with 3:01 to play in the second quarter.

The comeback started there. A 10-2 run brought them within 47-40 at halftime, an intermission but not a halt to the momentum.

The Lakers got the lead in the third quarter, but only temporarily as the Timberwolves hung tough, then for good with five minutes left.

"I think Shaq was obviously the difference in the game," Harris said. "He had a huge game at both ends of the court.

"Shaq just took it to a different level on defense. Everybody will talk about the 35 points and 19 rebounds. That's the obvious thing, and we're not going to turn any of it in. But the big thing was, he set the tone on defense."

The Timberwolves, coming off a victory over San Antonio, shot only 41.5%. The fact that they were still in it late, even with the misfirings, prompted the misgivings.

"People can say you hung close with them, you should be satisfied," Minnesota Coach Flip Saunders said. "Hanging close is a thing of the past. Those days are over. We have to come together if we want to be a playoff team. We have to be able to win these type of games."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Season of Expectations

The Lakers acquired nine new players this season, including Shaquille O'Neal and his $120-million contract. In turn, with big acquisitions come big expectations. Throughout the season, The Times will monitor O'Neal's numbers along with how the team compares to some of the best Laker teams in history.

GAME 2 OF 82

* Record: 2-0

* Standing: 1st place Western Division

1996-97 LAKERS VS. THE BEST LAKER TEAMS

*--*

Year Gm. 2 Overall 1987-88 2-0 62-20 1986-87 1-1 65-17 1984-85 0-2 62-20 1979-80 1-1 60-22 1971-72 2-0 69-13

*--*

Note: The five teams above all won NBA championships

THE SHAQ SCOREBOARD

Basketball Numbers

Sunday's Game:

*--*

Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 41 .700 .538 19 3 35

*--*

1996-97 Season Averages:

*--*

Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 38.0 .733 .583 16.5 2.5 29.0

*--*

1995-96 Season Averages:

*--*

Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 36.0 .573 .487 11.0 2.12 26.6

*--*

Money Numbers

* Sunday's salary: $130,658.53

* Season Totals: $261,317.06

* FACTOID: In game two of the 1986-87 season, after the Lakers defeated Seattle, Coach Pat Riley said: "You never say it's a must win in only the second game, but it was. There's been a lot of burden on our backs about us being finished."

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