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Lakers Concerned but Not Panicking

Pro basketball: As unexplainable losses mount, Kupchak won't rule out trade and calls upcoming trip critical.

January 24, 2002|TIM BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Phil Jackson, swept in soothing blue on Wednesday night, stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned back.

His expression said he's sure he was born for such occasions, when all around him are hemorrhaging their soothing blue, when the Lakers couldn't beat a last-place team no matter how lousy, when everyone's wondering why he just doesn't do something, for the love of Naismith, and three-peat this instant.

Earlier, the general manager had observed, "He's had bigger challenges," and then admitted he'd investigate a trade if things don't change in the weeks leading to the Feb. 21 deadline.

After all, schizophrenia might make for a beautiful mind, but it's hell on the home-court advantage, and you can see what it does to a man-to-man defense.

Mitch Kupchak said Wednesday that the coming trip--five games in five cities beginning Sunday at Philadelphia--would be critical to his sense of comfort in this team going into the final two months of the regular season. While he insisted he would not be rushed into a trade over a month of spotty results, neither would he ignore unfathomable losses.

"In our business," Kupchak said, "the next important date that comes to mind is the trade deadline."

This was easier to take, maybe, back when the next punch was more likely to be thrown at a teammate than a foe, when the Lakers would lose to the bubble gum on the bottom of their shoes because of Shaq and Kobe and, well, you know. That was last year, and this, this is just odd. They could use an athletic defender and a weighty back-up for Shaquille O'Neal, but those aren't cheap or necessarily available.

"We like the group," Kupchak said. "We feel they'll work their way through it."

Then again, he said, "I'm not going to rule out [a trade], either."

Since they were 16-1, when at least a few Lakers described themselves as capable of breaking the Chicago Bulls' record of 72 wins if not necessarily likely to do it, the Lakers are 12-10. They have endured lifeless home losses to Seattle, Toronto, Miami and, in the worst yet, Denver on Tuesday night, by 16 points.

"That's probably the issue at hand," Kupchak said. "Our concentration seems to wander."

There aren't two nights in a decade in which that Nugget team is 16 points better than this Laker team on this home floor.

But it happened, and Jackson sighed, and then he said, "Basketball just turns on a trifle."

The Lakers are 28-11, three victories better than they were at the same time last season, but about seven losses worse than could be expected by now. In their last nine losses, all since Dec. 7, the Lakers have allowed a field-goal percentage of 46.6. In the other 30 games, they allowed a shooting percentage of 40.4.

"It's only alarming because it could mean something at the end of the year," Kupchak said of home-floor games in the playoffs.

So, it turns on defense, which turns on effort, which turns on interest.

And that, as it happens, turns on Jackson.

"You grow tremendously as a basketball team when the dust settles and the players figure these things out for themselves," he said. "Not what my imposed nature could be on this team, by restricting or curtailing these guys."

Jackson has two ways to take this. The Lakers had a lousy regular season last year and won their second consecutive championship, so there's no reason to change a thing.

Or, the Lakers had a lousy regular season last year, were fortunate enough to get hot at the end, and now think they can rediscover the same passion when April 1 rolls around.

"It's a matter of what can we do to get better, not about the fact we're in the same rut we were in last year," he said. "As if [to believe], 'Obviously when the time comes we'll be able to step it up a different notch and go ahead like we did last year.' That's not what we're trying to do, is replay last year. It's, 'Let's try to find a way to be a better basketball club.' And, whatever it takes during this period of time, we'll do it. Whether it takes less shooting, less practice, more practice, more shooting, different styles of shoot-arounds, whatever it takes, let's play up to our potential."

It's about them. They know it's about them.

"There's nothing about our opponents that's causing our problems," point guard Derek Fisher said. "You get concerned when you're getting beat and you can't do anything about it.

"There's still a sense of, not exactly 'Wait 'til April,' but we knew we have that ability. I mean, we're the ones trying to do this for the third time in a row. Nobody else is."

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