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Lakers Are a Soft Touch for Pacers

Pro basketball: Indiana exploits L.A.'s defense, comes back from 14-point deficit for 110-109 victory.


INDIANAPOLIS — The Lakers hardly even bother with these defeats anymore, another one Sunday evening, their 18th already, this one to a team that probably won't make the playoffs in the NBA's weak conference.

Shaquille O'Neal wanted the basketball more at the end. Kobe Bryant wanted to make the game-winning shot, which with any defense at all would have been made in the third quarter. Phil Jackson wanted more defense. Or some defense. Or someone to spell defense.

The Indiana Pacers scored 36 points in the fourth quarter and beat the Lakers, 110-109, at Conseco Fieldhouse, where old nemesis Reggie Miller rose up and scored 18 points in the last 11 minutes 30 seconds.

Bryant took the final shot with four seconds left. It was a 22-footer from the right baseline that hit the far rim and bounced high and left, too high and too left for a rebound and a put-back.

The Lakers, meantime, had long before decided to try to score with the Pacers--among the five worst offensive teams in the league--rather than defend them. Bryant, who scored the Lakers' last four points and finished with 33, actually had two shots at the victory.

The first ended with Jalen Rose nearly stealing the ball from Bryant, then falling backwards out of bounds with the ball in his hands and four seconds left. The second was the 22-footer, the miss.

"I had an open look," said Bryant, who had made recent game-winners against Phoenix and New Jersey.

Bryant missed five of seven shots down the stretch, none of them easy. O'Neal, who had 35 points and 15 rebounds, attempted one shot over the final 4 1/2 minutes.

"It just worked out the way it did," Jackson said. "Kobe took the shots even though we were looking for a screen-and-roll with him punching it in on the weak side. Kobe took the opportunity to shoot the ball."

O'Neal, who made nine of 15 free-throw attempts, said he expected his own opportunities at the end, though he often had two or three Pacers standing around him.

"I sure do," he said. "I've been saying that all year."

The Pacers did all of the jumping around. People in the crowd hugged each other. Right through the middle of it, the Lakers lowered their heads and trudged away from another game they figured they had won, from another game in which they miscalculated the exact effort required to win, from another game in which they were a step, a sacrifice and a deed short.

"We let another one get away," O'Neal said.

And that was that.

The Lakers almost won a championship here last spring, in a place where hotel signs beg, "No Pets in Concierge Lounge," as if that had become a growing issue, and in the land of squared-off bangs and rusted undercarriages.

As it was, they bagged their title a couple of days later in Los Angeles, against these very Pacers. On their trek back, you couldn't have blamed the Lakers if they had run their fingers across the memories of last season, their championship, and the sacrifice that got them there.

Then their mouths move, and sound comes out, but the words mean so little and their eyes are nearly vacant. It is getting harder, not easier. They are 2-2 since O'Neal returned from his strained right arch, 2-2 on a trip that has seen them allow an average of 59 second-half points. The Pacers got them for 64 in the last two quarters after being down 14 at halftime. Two games before, the Pacers scored 66 points against Charlotte--in the whole game.

"Defensively, we got soft," Jackson said. "Our defense has been really suspect. We've been talking about it. Yet there's something else we've got to work on defensively."

Jackson was asked if it weren't time for massive change. It might be too late for a personnel change, though the trade deadline isn't until Thursday. But whatever Jackson is asking of them--no rotations, no double-teaming, funnel everyone to O'Neal--has not fit this personnel.

"We have to change something about it," he said. "Penetration is really hurting us. The screen-and-roll has been a problem for us."

Miller got hot and Travis Best started running screen-and-rolls with whoever was out there, and suddenly the Lakers allowed the Pacers points in 17 of their 19 fourth-quarter possessions. The Lakers blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, a 14-point lead in the third quarter and a talent advantage large enough for Isiah Thomas' debt and Bobby Knight's ego.

"What are you going to do?" Bryant said.

Miller, who finished with 33 points, was open every time he wanted to be in the fourth quarter. After the Lakers took a 103-101 lead on O'Neal's three-point play, Miller scored the Pacers' next seven points. Then Best wriggled free from Brian Shaw and hit a 20-foot jumper from the right wing with 18.6 seconds left that gave the Pacers their 110-109 lead.

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