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LAKER REPORT

Ready or Not, Shaq Is Due Back

January 21, 2002

Since December 21, a month ago today, Shaquille O'Neal has played five full basketball games and three-quarters of another, at which point he got ejected and suspended for the haymaker that shined Brad Miller's ear.

At the moment Stu Jackson's dart hit three, thus determining the length in games of O'Neal's suspension, Laker Coach Phil Jackson mused that it might be just as well, since O'Neal's aching toe needed a rest anyway.

Barely six games off the injured list, O'Neal was hurting again, apparently, and more than one theorist suggested the constant pain robbed O'Neal of his famous composure, leading to the attack on Miller.

O'Neal returns as a full-time Laker today, when he is expected back from his grandmother's funeral in time for practice.

He is expected to play Tuesday night at Staples Center against the Denver Nuggets, and thus resume a fractured season.

The question, then, is how long before O'Neal needs another day off? Another week?

Already, Jackson has held O'Neal out of all or parts of practices, and still O'Neal gradually loses mobility and explosiveness.

O'Neal has considered surgery that doctors believe would free the first joint of his toe, but recovery takes three to four months, and so far no one has suggested he attempt it until after the season, if at all.

"We haven't got a feel for it yet," Jackson said. "We don't know the extent of what it's going to be. We don't know if it's going to be [aggravated] by overuse, which doesn't always have to be the same case with arthritis. I've got at least four viable cures: an herbal cure, a dietary cure, a liniment cure, and acupuncture still hasn't been used. I mean, we've got a lot of ways to go yet.

"And we still have a voodoo doctor, a 1-800 (doctor), on channel TNT."

O'Neal said recently that he has not sought a second opinion, that he awakes every morning and does what he can, through the anti-inflammatory medication-induced nausea.

In the meantime, Jackson is not sure what he has, or how long he has it, and O'Neal hasn't answered questions from the media in more than a week, so it is difficult to know what he is feeling today.

"There's time,'' Jackson said. "There's time in the playoffs. You have this constant marathon that you're going through in the regular season."

That changes in the playoffs, when television forces an airier schedule, so O'Neal rarely, if ever, would have to play on consecutive days after mid-April.

*

Though O'Neal has snubbed the Los Angeles media, he told the New York Times late last week that he pulled the punch that all but missed Miller.

"If I made contact," he said, "I don't even want to think what would have happened."

He added that the Miller incident would not be indicative of his new court demeanor, though he has told teammates otherwise.

He also said he warned Miller well before the punch, which Kobe Bryant and Rick Fox overheard.

"I don't carry things from game to game," O'Neal said. "It's over. I'm moving on."

*

The left wrist corrected by surgery last summer no longer bothers Mark Madsen, who Saturday in San Antonio made a dunk and a jump hook, both over Tim Duncan, and both left-handed.

"There was a time last year when I'd go left and lose control of the ball," he said. "Now, I don't have any problem with that."

During O'Neal's suspension, Madsen averaged 27 minutes, 8.0 points and 7.0 rebounds.

He made 12 of 22 field-goal attempts and, more important, made a total pest of himself.

"I'm definitely confident," he said. "It's a matter of trying, with Shaq out, to knuckling down and playing a little harder."

Mitch Richmond, lost in Jackson's rotation for three months, is starting to do some things. In nine January games--he had a DNP-CD on Jan. 11 in Minnesota--Richmond has made 18 of 37 field-goal attempts, including eight of 14 from the arc.... Brian Shaw, meantime, has four DNP's in January.

Tim Brown

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