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Lakers Turn Combination Into a Lock

Pro basketball: O'Neal has 28 points, Bryant 29 in 115-108 win over Timberwolves.

November 25, 2000|TIM BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a night when neither can be covered, when Shaquille O'Neal is as large as ever and Kobe Bryant is but a blur, there is no defense that is sturdy enough. Certainly not Minnesota's.

The Lakers defeated the Timberwolves, 115-108, before 18,997 Friday night at Staples Center, where O'Neal scored 28 and Bryant scored 29 and they both made more than they missed.

"It was all in the flow of the game," Laker forward Horace Grant said. "They're starting to realize they're going to get theirs. And if they get their teammates off first, it'll all come back to them."

It was as one would expect from two of the NBA's high-scoring offenses, though the Timberwolves were competitive only as long as their perimeter shooting allowed.

When their shots ceased to fall, they could not nudge O'Neal from the basket and they could not hang with Bryant. Not even close.

So, the Lakers won their third consecutive game and Minnesota lost for the first time in six.

O'Neal also took 16 rebounds. He and Bryant also had five assists.

"We're able to put it together in little increments," Bryant said. "The execution still has to become more consistent."

Playing from a one-point halftime deficit, the Lakers scored 33 third-quarter points, 10 of them by Bryant, eight apiece by O'Neal and Rick Fox, who finished with 15 points and made all three of his three-point tries.

The points came just as the Lakers clamped down on the Timberwolves.

Quietly, or as quietly as 30-or-so points a night from Bryant can be, given the rim-thumping dunks and sneaker-exploding crossovers, the Lakers have a new leading scorer. It is Bryant, who scored 31 or more points seven times in 13 games, and is averaging 26.8 points, nearly a full point more than O'Neal.

He has done it with the usual accouterments--that is, questions about his shot selection and the sheer proliferation of them, then about his relationship to the guy who has led the Lakers in scoring for the last four years.

It's all stuff that comes with the purple-and-gold territory, or whenever Shaq isn't the one scoring all the points every game.

Bryant's surge has come at a time when O'Neal was suffered from nagging injuries to both his thumbs, his left ankle and his left Achilles'. He sat out a game last week, couldn't hold the basketball in another and couldn't jump in a couple of others.

In part because of that and in part because he's almost always open, Bryant has taken about 50 more shots than O'Neal. It is possible, Coach Phil Jackson said with a shrug, that Bryant could lead the Lakers in scoring.

"If he takes that amount of shots he has a good chance of doing that," Jackson said before the game. "But, it changes the focus of our team."

The focus, the first focus, is O'Neal. There is not a center in the game who can guard him. Bryant, of course, can make the same claim among the shooting guards and small forwards.

There's enough game, it would seem, for both.

"That depends on how it goes," Jackson said. "[Bryant] has got to have a feel for the game. He's got to understand what the game's all about. If he's doing things like he was in the first quarter the other night [playmaking against Golden State], at a certain point in the game he opens it up a little bit and does some other things, which led to fun for him. Frills."

It's the usual observations from Jackson, followed by the usual hopes and dreams for the triangle offense.

"Well, one guy shoots 58% and the other one is shooting 43%," Jackson said. "Logically, it makes sense that Shaq should get some shots."

The Timberwolves have no one to counter O'Neal, although he drew two first-quarter fouls.

"I wasn't going to let it disturb our game plan," Jackson said. "We thought he could play without fouling."

He could, and as a result, the Laker lead grew gradually. Coach Flip Saunders ran the stringy-armed, baby-faced Radoslav Nesterovic at O'Neal. Then Dean Garrett. Even Kevin Garnett.

It didn't work. Not on this night.

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