ORLANDO, Fla. — After he had sufficiently thumped his adopted hometown's basketball team, Shaquille O'Neal stood in a hallway here and wrapped beefy arms around his mother, Lucille. He gave her a gentle kiss on the left cheek. She smiled up at him.
"All right," he told her. "I'll see you soon."
Then he was off, all of the Lakers were, away from a 95-90 victory against the Orlando Magic on Sunday afternoon at TD Waterhouse Centre, carrying perhaps another ounce of momentum toward a playoff season only 16 games away, even if their coach wasn't so sure.
They have won four in a row, three of them on the trip and all since Derek Fisher came off the injured list and persuaded them to try to play defense. While none of them was against a particularly formidable team, Orlando--the town and the team--was pretty game, having gotten back Tracy McGrady from his two-game suspension for fighting and posing before a national television audience.
But on an afternoon when Kobe Bryant was off his game, O'Neal scattered the Magic front line with 33 points and 17 rebounds to help the Lakers move into first place in the Pacific Division. The crowd booed his dominance, and afterward crowded him for autograph requests, which he granted as he waded to the team bus and left his mom behind.
"Ah," O'Neal said, "I've been booed since elementary school."
All in all, it wasn't a bad weekend for O'Neal, who slept in his off-season bed for two nights, inspected the 8,000-foot addition to his Isleworth manor, hugged a lot of old friends, and then reminded everyone what they were missing, in case Andrew DeClercq and Michael Doleac weren't enough.
"It is always nice to play here," said O'Neal, who a month ago was quoted as saying he wouldn't mind making it permanent again. There was less talk of that, however, and more of the Lakers, a month away from the postseason. "Put up or shut up," O'Neal said.
Coach Phil Jackson came out of the toll booth-sized visitors' locker room, folded a final box score in his hands, and said he was mostly unhappy again.
"Aw," Robert Horry said, "some people just are never satisfied, unless it's a blowout."
Not that Horry blamed him, totally.
"We still do a lot of stupid stuff," he said.
The Laker offense, Jackson said, was unacceptable, other than O'Neal, and then again O'Neal made only half of his free throws. The Lakers also committed 15 turnovers, nine in the first half, keeping the Magic close.
Bryant scored 16 points in 37 minutes. He missed 12 of 17 shots, most of them jumpers, a few of them difficult fade-aways. He said his problematic ankles felt "tight," throwing off his aim.
"We're not playing with our heads," Jackson said. "We're not doing the thing that we need to do to carry that championship banner right now. I'm looking for more, and these guys have responded with better defense. I think we're still a bit anxious. I'm not going to belittle the fact that we're not playing well, we're just not playing with our heads."
It bothered Jackson that the Lakers, and Bryant in particular, were satisfied with 22-foot jumpers, when two or three Magic defenders never left O'Neal's shadow. The mid-range jumpers were open. Bryant was three for 13 before making a couple of key shots down the stretch. While the Magic never led, it did draw to within a point in the fourth quarter, at 75-74.
"We had a little talk about it at halftime and during the game," Jackson said of Bryant. "I thought he forced it a little bit."
Bryant said he was unconcerned.
"There was no need for me to turn it up," he said.
Along with Rick Fox and Brian Shaw, Bryant apportioned a lot of his energy to guarding McGrady, who made 13 of 24 field goals and scored 29 points. He scored only four in the fourth quarter, however. Mike Miller scored 18 points, half of those from the three-point line.
The Magic was four for 21 from the arc, including Darrell Armstrong's 0 for 6. Asked about that, Jackson said, "Did you see a lot of hands in guys' faces?"
Not a lot.
In the locker room, Fox said, "He grouses in here too. But I'd like to think we're feeling a little more confidence in our defense. Fish brings that. So, we're getting a little more aggressive there, and smarter."
They all agreed they have a distance to go. They wonder how far they can get before the playoffs. For now they can only presume it will be enough time.
"I don't think we're starting to feel like we're invincible, by any means," Fisher said. "Definitely, though, it's more positive."