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LAKER-CLIPPER REPORT

O'Neal's Mood Mellows

January 24, 2002

Shaquille O'Neal skipped the pregame media pleasantries for an 11th consecutive day, allowing, "I'm still angry," though not really looking it.

A possible reason for O'Neal's gradual mood thaw: He told teammates his ailing big toe is feeling better, in part because of a new carbon-type plate in his shoe.

O'Neal experiences pain when his arthritic toe is bent back. The plate, put on the bottom of the right shoe, stabilizes the toe, which also is wrapped heavily before practices and games.

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The playing time comes and goes for Derek Fisher, who in the last 10 days has played 21 minutes and 42 minutes and parts in between.

As Phil Jackson continues to scrounge for back-court minutes for Mitch Richmond, Lindsey Hunter and, sometimes, Brian Shaw, Fisher attempts to maintain his shooting touch. So, he misses seven of nine threes Tuesday night against Denver, six days after making five of eight, eight days after making seven of 12.

"I see it as more about the bigger picture," Fisher said. "He's won two championships with me and Kobe [Bryant] and Shaq and all of us, and in some situations he wants to find out what Mitch Richmond can do for us, and Lindsey Hunter.

"He's learning more about those new guys."

At the same time, he sometimes sees a bad streak coming.

"I'm a rhythm basketball player, a flow player," he said. "The good thing about last year was coming back and playing 36 minutes a night. I got into a good rhythm quickly and stayed in that rhythm."

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Laker crowds have been typically subdued lately. Perhaps they, too, are waiting for the playoffs.

"I think Staples is a great place for people of L.A. to come and meet and greet each other and have a nice time and talk to each other," Jackson said. "If people yell, they may not be able to converse with each other. No, I mean, the crowd was here to be entertained [Tuesday] night [against Denver], not to encourage our basketball team. And that's OK.

"I mean, we're the ones who are supposed to provide that spark for the team. But it was not a partisan crowd."

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The trade deadline is Feb. 21 and the phones are starting to ring in general managers' offices around the NBA. Like everyone else, the Clippers are listening. "We're not trying to trade any of our players, and I know that for a fact," Coach Alvin Gentry said. "That's not to say we're not going to listen."

The simple fact is that the Clippers, the league's youngest team with an average age of 24.8 years, are not in a position to trade for a player who could help bring them a championship. Or at least get them deep into the playoffs.

"We want to be a championship team," Gentry said. "But we have so many young guys that we have to grow into that. Patience has to be the key word. It's not going to happen overnight.

"We're making strides. It's a work in progress. I think we've all got to understand that."

Tearing up the team's roster at midseason simply doesn't fit into the big picture for the Clippers. Gentry is pleased with the strides the team has made since the start of the season.

"We're a better team, but so are a lot of other teams," he said.

Improving their 3-14 road record is Gentry's top priority. "We've played well at home, we've been competitive at home," he said. "We have to try to find a way to do it on the road. If we're going to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, we have to find a way to do it on the road.""Am I happy? Somewhat. The whole thing with us is it's a maturation process. It will take time. I think our young guys are getting better. We have the makings of a good basketball team here. We're making strides."

Tim Brown and Elliott Teaford

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