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The Challenge Is to Remain in the Jewelry Business

Expectations are even higher for Shaq and Co. to repeat a gem of a season.


On Wednesday night, when they hand him the little box with the ring in it, Shaquille O'Neal will pry open the lid, peek in and perhaps marvel at its brilliance. He might even try it on, this ring, the mere thought of which brought tears to his eyes only four months ago.

Then, O'Neal will put that thick ring back in its box and send it, along with every ounce of satisfaction from last season, to his father, Philip Harrison, outside Orlando, Fla.

And that will be that.

So long 1999-2000 NBA championship. So long 1999-2000 NBA MVP award.

"My favorite quote is, 'I've won on every level except college and the NBA,' " O'Neal said recently. "It was a lot of work. We came together as a unit. Got lucky a few times. Everything fell in place. I think it was meant to be for me, because I failed so many times at it. It was just my time. Every player, every person has their turn, and it was just my turn."

He also said it is simply too soon to relinquish it.

"We're a better team this year," he said.

Since General Manager Mitch Kupchak dealt away Glen Rice for power forward Horace Grant and others, and since he added free-agent scorer Isaiah Rider in the backcourt, it is not an uncommon observation.

It is time to see.

The Lakers open defense of their title Tuesday night at Portland. With the game against the Trail Blazers arrives the official season after, and so too arrive expectations as dense as the diamonds in those rings.

The Lakers stand challenged by Coach Phil Jackson, who twice won three in a row as coach of the Chicago Bulls. And by a town that won't forget that Magic Johnson repeated in the 1980s.

They are challenged by a Portland team that, but for the most devastating quarter in franchise history, would have gone to the NBA finals instead of the Lakers. And, by a Western Conference packed with the talent and muscle to sap the organizational momentum earned from a championship won more than four months ago.

They are challenged finally by their own roster, which lacks a consistent outside threat and enough guard depth to allow Kobe Bryant the run of the offense on the wing, a position for which he was born.

"I think we'll get off to a slower start than we did last year," veteran guard Brian Shaw said. "I know everybody's going to be so hyped up playing against us."

In that case, it appears doubtful the Lakers will match their 67 regular-season victories, their 19-game winning streak or their three winning streaks of 10 or more games. But, the Lakers talk less about November than they do April, May and June. They are, however, mindful that their 15-point, fourth-quarter, Game 7 comeback might never have happened at The Rose Garden. So, home-court advantage has its place among their goals.

"The season can't be won or lost in the first week of the season, or the first month or even the first two months," O'Neal said. "If we win the first game, we're not going to be overly excited. If we lose the first game, we're not going to be depressed. Eighty games, brother. That's how you've got to look at it. We'll be ready to play Portland, but we won't know what will happen until we get up there."

They might as well start in the West, near the top of the Pacific Division, where they'll likely be shoulder to shoulder with the Trail Blazers all season anyway.

"The West is very good," Jackson said. "There are 11 teams in the West I think are good basketball teams. Denver has improved. I don't know how good they can be. The other team, the Clippers, has improved talent-wise. Vancouver was playing very good basketball the second half of last year. Dallas improved themselves. Houston has improved themselves.

"I don't think it'll make a big difference as far as bearing out at the top. I do think it's going to take away from the number of wins. If we get back to 60 wins this season, that would be a significant thing, given the difficult competition in the West."

Essentially, Jackson said, "You have to have luck, you have to have good health, you have to have the right things fall into place."

Portland loaded up on power forwards, adding Dale Davis and Shawn Kemp to Rasheed Wallace. So the Lakers got Grant and an O'Neal backup, Greg Foster.

"We match up well with other big teams," O'Neal said. "Last year, we had only one big guy--me. This year, we've got a lot of big guys. It's going to take a lot of pounding off me."

The Western Division scores points. So, the Lakers intend to play a more ferocious defense; at times they might even press. They are more athletic and younger, with Rider and Mark Madsen.

"I do know we're going to be a better defensive team," Bryant said. "I could tell right off the bat, our intensity's a lot better. Physically, we have the talent to play the style of defense Phil wants us to play."

In turn, Bryant said, "We'll get more easy baskets. In the preseason, we've been getting a lot of run-outs, a lot of transition baskets."

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