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BILL PLASCHKE

No surprise, O'Neal Carries Lakers

New-look Clippers still have a long way to go and grow, but they are a long way from where they were last season.

November 06, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

This was a loss?

This wasn't a loss.

Scoring 19 points in one half is a loss. Allowing Shaquille O'Neal a 61-point birthday cake is a loss. Making dinner plans with fans behind your bench during the fourth quarter is a loss.

Compared to recent backyard scrums, what happened Sunday night for the Clippers against the Lakers was not a loss.

It will go in the record books as Lakers 108, Clippers 103.

It will go in the memory banks of the NBA's youngest team as something else entirely.

Something such as Darius Miles rejecting Shaquille O'Neal.

Something such as Lamar Odom stutter-stepping and spinning past three Lakers for a layup.

Something such as Eric Piatkowski throwing an in-bounds pass off the back of Isaiah Rider for another layup.

It's a long season. There is still plenty of time for their players to get kicked by high heels in back-alley brawls and refuse to leave the team bus if they're not traded.

But as of Sunday, these are not your crazy-old-relative-in-the-ratty-bathrobe's Clippers.

No wins in their previous 13 games against the Lakers. A 22-point average margin of defeat for them last season.

Yet, a six-point lead early in the fourth quarter. A tie score with eight minutes left.

All told, the Clippers gave them enough of a scare that the Lakers felt a necessity to publicly shrug them off.

"I think we played down to the level of our competition," O'Neal said.

Upon reading this, the Clipper may be jumping into each other arms.

Goodness, somebody has actually noticed them enough to diss them.

"I hope there's a feeling that things are different," said Sean Rooks, Clipper backup center and former Laker who understands. "Because believe me, things are different."

Maybe the Lakers didn't believe it, but their 18,997 fans at Staples Center did.

They booed Kobe Bryant when he took bad shots, screamed at the referees to call fouls on anonymous guys in baggy red uniforms, and actually counted down the final seconds.

Quick, now, when is the last time Laker fans even stuck around for the final seconds of a Clipper game?

"When you're that talented and that young, you're going to play hard for 48 minutes," the Lakers' Horace Grant said. "That's what they did."

They did more than that. Other sorry Clipper teams have played hard. Heck, Bo Outlaw and Darrick Martin played hard.

Under calm Coach Alvin Gentry, who actually seems to chuckle more than he screams, these Clippers also played smart.

For the first time since O'Neal arrived here five years ago, they drove the ball right into his smile.

For the first time, they blanketed him with smarter team defense.

And so for the first time, they were able to stay close enough to actually employ Hack-a-Shaq late in the game. He made four of six free throws after those fouls, so it didn't work, but it was fun to watch them try.

"From tonight we got this feeling--we can play," Odom said.

Bystanders also got the feeling that, unlike past Clipper teams, they actually enjoy doing it.

Standing between Odom and teenager Miles afterward was like standing in a gospel choir.

"We work hard," Odom said.

"Yeah, yeah," Miles said.

"We listen to our coach."

"Yes sir, yes sir."

"We know we can compete with anybody."

"Right, right, right."

This is, of course, wrong, wrong, wrong.

This is not going to be a playoff team. They are so young and thin--five of them would fit into one O'Neal, it seemed--that they could be little more than a collection of bruises by March.

Said Gentry: "Our journey is a lot, lot, lot different from the Lakers' journey."

But if Sunday was any indication, it's going to be a fun trip.

Odom, with 19 points and a game-high 15 rebounds, finally seems relaxed enough to unleash the skills that last season we only saw in spurts.

Miles, who wore an '70s' afro to go with his '90s' tattoos Sunday, had three blocked shots and six rebounds and will get better as his high-school body gets bigger.

And who was that actually playing defense in the middle? Oh yeah, Michael Olowokandi, who, incredibly, might not yet end up being one of the biggest first-pick draft busts of all time.

Their three other celebrated youngsters--Quentin Richardson, Keyon Dooling and Corey Maggette--only played 17 minutes combined Sunday as the learning begins.

"We're just taking baby steps here," Gentry said.

As for the Lakers, well, it's difficult to tell exactly what they are doing.

The only thing certain is, for now, they better just keep throwing the ball to O'Neal until they figure it out.

Phil Jackson is all over Bryant like the smell of bad champagne, perhaps because he thinks Bryant still hasn't cleaned last spring's celebration out of his hair.

They need injured Derek Fisher. They aren't quite sure what to do with Rider. Grant is still finding his way. Robert Horry just showed up.

Could it also be that, for now, just for now, they actually miss the scoring of Glen Rice?

Nah. This column is already too incredible without making that point. Or is it?

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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