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Lakers Just Don't Have It in the End

Pro basketball: Fisher misses final shot in 79-78 loss to Knicks. Injured Bryant makes abbreviated appearance.

April 02, 2001|LONNIE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The stage was set for Kobe Bryant to make a dramatic return to the Lakers' lineup after sitting out five consecutive games because of a sore left ankle and foot. With the New York Knicks in town Sunday for a nationally televised game, it figured Bryant would try to showcase his toughness.

But Bryant's desire to step into the spotlight and play didn't last too long. He endured barely a quarter before the pain became too much and without him, the Lakers failed to execute in crunch time and lost, 79-78, to the Knicks in front of a sellout Staples Center crowd of 18,997.

Maybe Bryant should have waited until the fourth quarter to make his return because the Lakers definitely missed his presence when the Knicks collapsed on Shaquille O'Neal and forced Derek Fisher to take the last shot of the game, which he missed.

"Yeah, that would have been nice," said Laker Coach Phil Jackson about having Bryant on the floor down the stretch.

"We tried to get the ball into Shaq, but they just smothered him."

After trimming New York's 79-74 lead to a point, the Lakers had a chance to win when they had the ball at halfcourt with 5.6 seconds remaining. But on the final play, the Knicks sandwiched O'Neal with two defenders and Fisher drove to his left before launching an off-target shot that fell into the hands of New York's Kurt Thomas to end the game.

"I knew there really was no way we were going to get it into the Big Fella," said Fisher, who made four of eight field goals and finished with nine points. "I didn't want to force it in there, so I decided to put my head down and see what I could do. . . . My thing was to try and get it to the rim and hopefully I would make the shot. But if I didn't, I wanted to give us an opportunity to get a tap-in."

O'Neal, who finished with 31 points and 11 rebounds, wanted the ball at the end of the game.

"I told Phil and the coaches to make sure that I get it," said O'Neal, who made eight of 13 field goals in the game. "He drew up a pretty nice play, but their defense put one guy behind me and they put one guy in front of me. They forced us to shoot the jumper and we really weren't shooting good from the outside all day."

The Lakers, who have lost three of their last four games, do not have anyone to blame for Sunday's loss but themselves.

In facing a New York team that had lost its previous three games--including an embarrassing loss at Vancouver--and four of its last five, the Lakers wasted a superior game from O'Neal.

The Knicks threw everyone they had at O'Neal and couldn't stop him. Thomas, Larry Johnson, Marcus Camby and Othella Harrington all spent time getting dogged inside by the Laker big man and even when they fouled him, O'Neal made them pay by making 15 of 22 free throws.

But after the Lakers opened a 10-point first-half lead, the Knicks got better at swarming O'Neal and made him pass back outside to his teammates. That help defense slowed the Laker offense and New York got back into the game, leading, 49-48, at halftime.

In the third quarter, the Laker defense gave them back the lead, but their offense remained a little sluggish. Brian Shaw, Horace Grant, Isaiah "J.R." Rider, Devean George and Robert Horry combined to make only seven of 33 field goals. Rick Fox (four for eight) and Fisher were the only Lakers other than O'Neal to make at least 50% of their shots.

The game turned when Jackson kept O'Neal out of the game for the first four minutes of the fourth quarter. With Rider, Horry, George, Grant and Mike Penberthy on the floor, the Lakers lost their offensive flow and the Knicks took full advantage.

New York, which was led by Camby's 20 points and 15 rebounds and Latrell Sprewell's 19 points, took control of the game and thanks to three consecutive missed three-point shots from Shaw, the Knicks had a 79-74 lead with less than two minutes remaining.

The Lakers, however, didn't roll over. O'Neal scored four consecutive points to put them into position to win.

"We had our opportunities," Jackson said. "We made a run for it and had a shot at it. But they had us playing their style of game."

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