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J.A. ADANDE

Bryant Fills the Void for Lakers in Victory

Bryant and Rider need to work together for offense to get back on the right track.

November 13, 2000|J.A. ADANDE

Right here in the handy book of sports cliches there's a little-known corollary to the old saying "The opera ain't over till the fat lady sings."

It reads: "The Earth Wind & Fire song hasn't started till the horns kick in."

In other words, wait until things really get going before you pay attention.

After the Lakers' first losing streak, their first Isaiah Rider missed bus (albeit with an excuse), a glaring number of what Coach Phil Jackson called "gross inadequacies" and a previously unthinkable three consecutive sub-standard games by Shaquille O'Neal, it was time to cue the brass.

The Lakers were on the verge of losing three consecutive games for the first time since February 1999 and faced a losing record for the first time since the start of the 1995-96 season before they secured a closer-than-necessary 105-99 victory over the Houston Rockets Sunday night.

O'Neal scored only 14 points on six-for-14 shooting, and he is shooting 41% (19 for 46) in his past three games. This goes beyond a case of "missed chippies," his normal explanation. Now there's a medical explanation: what the Lakers are calling a sprained right thumb.

"I think his thumb is bothering him," Brian Shaw said.

"He thinks he's indestructible, and he doesn't like to say anything to anybody, but I notice on his shot the ball hasn't been rolling off his hand smoothly like it normally does. He's just been kind of guiding the ball because his thumb is bothering him. He's still getting great position, he's getting great looks, the ball just isn't dropping for him."

So after O'Neal carried the Lakers while Kobe Bryant sat out the first month of the season with a hand injury last season, it's time to see how Kobe will fare with an extra burden while O'Neal is hurting.

He scored 37 points Sunday, making 12 of 29 shots. The main benefit of having Bryant as the go-to guy is he's a dependable foul shooter. He made 12 of 15 free throws against Houston.

Bryant said his shots (he took 31 against San Antonio on Wednesday) are coming in the flow of the offense and he isn't trying to pick up the slack for O'Neal.

"You can't think like that," Bryant said. "You just go out there and play. The natural sequence of the game tends to play out that way, but it just comes naturally."

The extra shots just seem to come more naturally when O'Neal takes them, primarily because he is usually so close to the basket and he always ranks among the league leaders in field-goal percentage.

When the offense doesn't run through O'Neal, everything gets thrown out of whack.

One of these nights, Bryant is going to hit on everything and they can just ship the game tape directly to ESPN Classic.

In the meantime there continue to be the requisite number of rolled eyes and shaken heads when Bryant is not finding his teammates. But above all, Bryant and Rider need to work something out.

One of Jackson's many criticisms of Bryant last year was that he didn't get the ball to Glen Rice. Tht would have helped Rice to be more effective.

If Bryant can consistently find Rider, that would make the lineup so much more potent when they're in together.

On one possession Sunday, Rider was wide open, doing jumping jacks beyond the three-point line, trying to get Bryant to notice him. By the time Bryant finished dribbling around and finally gave him the ball, it was too late.

The next time downcourt, Bryant made a point of looking for Rider. He motioned for him to go into the low post. Bryant fed him a bounce pass, then watched as Rider forced up a shot in double-coverage and had it partially blocked.

Not exactly encouragement for him to go back to him.

But Rider did score 12 points, including a three-pointer at the end of the third quarter.

The best way to get Rider integrated would be to start him. Sooner, rather than later.

Jackson shuffled the lineup and inserted Shaw in place of Rick Fox, moved Bryant to small forward and saw the Lakers jump out, 9-2.

The offense flows so well with both Shaw and Ron Harper in to aid the ball movement, and no one on the team is better at finding O'Neal than Shaw.

Shaw said he felt more comfortable playing right away, and the same would probably work for Rider, a starter throughout his career.

The best sign for the Lakers is O'Neal's activity on defense. It was his play on that end of the court that really made him the most valuable player last season, because he essentially closed off the lane and instilled confidence in the perimeter defenders. O'Neal was even better than usual Sunday night, jumping out to seal up pick-and-roll plays up top and blocking six shots inside.

The Lakers won't go anywhere without solid defense, but at some point they've got to get on track offensively. We'll learn a lot about them early on, as they struggle to find their groove, looking nothing like a Boogie Wonderland.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: ja.adande@latimes.com.

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