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Bling, Bling . . . Clunk

Pro basketball: After celebration of last season's glory, Lakers fall behind early against Jazz and rally comes up short.


The Utah Jazz, as it turned out, did not faint at the sight of the new yellow banner. Then again, it's so high up there, maybe they didn't see it.

The rings? Not much there, either, apparently.

Entirely unimpressed with the whole evening, Utah defeated the Lakers, 97-92, Wednesday night at Staples Center, the site of exactly five Laker defeats last year, their championship season.

So goes the Western Conference, where one night brings Portland and the next brings Utah. And neither might be as strong as San Antonio. The conference contenders pile up like Laker fans did in the arena's tunnels, a full four minutes before the game was done.

Perhaps distracted by the pregame celebration of a season that concluded almost five months before, the Lakers scored 31 first-half points.

"I was more emotional tonight than I was the night we clinched it," Laker forward Rick Fox said. "It was really strange. It was like I was in a daze out there. I think a lot of us were, and it showed."

Coach Phil Jackson saw it the same way.

"We were still standing in the winner's circle," he said, "enjoying the adulation."

By the time the Lakers found their offensive legs, Karl Malone and John Stockton had done their usual number. Shaquille O'Neal, who fouled out with 28 seconds left with 34 points and 15 rebounds, and Kobe Bryant, who scored 31, had run out of time.

"They got a lot of easy baskets," O'Neal said. "It took us awhile to get going. We still had a chance to win, but we didn't make good decisions down the stretch."

The Lakers scored 36 points in a frantic fourth quarter, but they gave up 32. They had four possessions with a chance to tie or go ahead in the final two minutes, and scored in only one of them.

Malone, who made three crucial jump shots in the final four minutes, scored 26 points. Stockton scored 21.

There isn't an NBA bylaw that prohibits booing within a half-hour of a banner raising. Maybe if Philadelphia won more often. Still, the few grumbles from the top deck were a shock.

The Lakers didn't play much like champions for a half, and a crowd that arrived hoping for perfection fell out of its pleasant mood and snarled some.

Remarkably fluid Tuesday in Portland, the Lakers lacked precision against the Jazz. O'Neal made 14 of 20 field-goal attempts, but he missed 12 of 18 free-throw attempts. He is 14 of 34 from the line in two games.

"You miss 12 free throws, it's going to hurt your team," Jackson said. "It's like a turnover. He knows and I know, that's his responsibility."

The Lakers scored 16 points in the first quarter and 15 in the second, primarily because everyone not named O'Neal or Bryant was a combined two for 18 from the field. Isaiah Rider, who played 31 minutes, scored 10 points.

Jackson, who has experienced 10 NBA ring ceremonies--eight as a recipient and two as a member of the team standing around wishing it was over--had a notion the Jazz might be eager to play.

"When you have a ring ceremony right in front of an opponent [like] Utah, and you make them sit for 30 minutes and watch whatever, the accolades and the celebration of a ring they haven't been able to get in the course of being a dominant force for a decade in this league, they're going to come out and make us pay attention quickly," Jackson said. "They'll have a lot of vim and vigor, I think."

Utah, good enough in the '90s to have championship expectations but not quite good enough to live up to them, waited in its locker room while the championship rings were distributed. When the lights came up, the Jazz hit the jumpers and the Lakers didn't. Defensively, Utah collapsed at O'Neal, much more aggressively than Portland had.

With 3:28 remaining in the first half, the Lakers down 16, and the offense alternating between turnovers and missed shots, O'Neal and Malone brushed shoulders. O'Neal pushed a little. Malone pushed back.

Nothing came of it. But O'Neal looked angry enough to smack Greg Ostertag. He didn't.

Down 44-31 at halftime, the Lakers rallied, and the points came from predictable places.

Bryant, disappointed in his foul-plagued, rhythm-less game against the Trail Blazers, found his touch in the third quarter. Deadened by the Lakers' fractured effort in the first half, the crowd stirred with Bryant. It waved yellow towels and begged for defensive stands, and for a moment in the third quarter the Lakers were within five points, 55-50.

Then Malone and Stockton did their usual.

Stockton scored often on drives to the basket, and when the Lakers grew too wary of that, he found teammates standing under the rim.

"They're the best executing team I've seen in 14 years," Horace Grant said.



There were more than enough good feelings to go around as the Lakers got their rings and raised their banner. D8


Rider unable to shrug off a questionable reputation, as strange call goes against him in the fourth quarter. D8


After sitting almost three quarters in Clipper opener, Maggette made the most of his time with 15 points and five rebounds. D8

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