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NBA CHAMPS | ROAD TO CHAMPIONSHIP REGULAR SEASON

Curing Sore Feet ... and Sore Feelings

Lakers: A regular season noted more for injuries, inconsistent play and even some fights, gave way to another postseason to cherish.

June 15, 2002|TIM BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The thing about raising banners and modeling championship rings is, at some point you've got to play the season, like it or not.

The Lakers do regular seasons the way Allen Iverson does practice. Even when they're there, their hearts aren't totally into it.

They got through this season, however, and generally without the fuss of the season before, though not seamlessly either.

They wrapped and soaked Shaquille O'Neal's feet and played a magical November, then became uninterested. For a while, they even lost their voice.

Kobe Bryant, O'Neal's MVP pick from the beginning, became a team captain at 23 and had only one or two leadership lapses. His maturity and even play made him a first-team All-NBA guard for the first time.

Finally, they arrived at the postseason reasonably hale and confident, at about where Coach Phil Jackson had hoped, and glad to be done with their regular-season requirements.

Eighty-two, they hardly knew you.

From 16-1, or how the notion of 73-9 was born

The best start in franchise history took the Lakers a week past Thanksgiving and convinced many that this was a team destined to challenge the Chicago Bulls' record 72-win season.

In the early weeks, despite O'Neal's bad feet and the predictably slow integration of newcomers Samaki Walker and Lindsey Hunter into the triangle offense, the Lakers beat Utah twice, Sacramento, Minnesota and Dallas.

They opened the defense of their back-to-back championships the night before Halloween by raising their championship banner. They received their rings in a pregame ceremony from Laker Vice President Jeanie Buss, who got a kiss from O'Neal and a high-five from Jackson.

Though the eyes of pro basketball were on New York, where Michael Jordan attempted to exhume his former self and his former game, the Lakers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers by 11 points and began a remarkable run, in spite of Jackson's uneasiness.

"I always predict a slow start," he had said.

In honor of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bryant wore shoes decorated with the colors of the American flag.

Off they went, through six weeks of wins and a lone loss, in Phoenix, by a lopsided 95-83. Though players and coaches warned that the team was not playing well despite the record, some said the Lakers had a chance to win 73 regular-season games, which would surpass the record set six years before by Jackson's Chicago Bulls.

Including the final eight games of the previous regular season and their 15-1 postseason, the Lakers reached Dec. 7 with 39 wins in 41 games.

It seemed the Lakers had found a formula in the previous season and that their momentum did not fade in three months away.

Unlike the last two seasons, when conflict eventually gave way to championships, the Lakers appeared emotionally secure.

"We keep looking back to last year's start," forward Rick Fox said, "and we have to be pretty satisfied that we've learned a little bit about defending a championship and coming prepared to start the season off in the right fashion."

Bryant, at one point, held up his hand.

"We're winning," he said, "but we can be so much better."

Turned out, they were worse. For the next 2 1/2 months, into mid-February, the Lakers were 19-15.

Shaq's aches, or how the notion of 73-9 died

There were times when Jackson didn't coach basketball as much as he coaxed it.

Mostly, out of O'Neal and his sore feet.

After spending most of the summer hoping his deformed left small toe would heal, O'Neal had surgery in August, pretty much killing training camp and his desire to go into the season at 290 pounds. He missed that by plenty, some said by 70 pounds or more.

Then, trying to limp through the early weeks and leaning hard on his right foot, his arthritic right big toe became unbearably painful, beginning a season-long experiment with new shoes and orthotics and liniments and injections and anti-inflammatory drugs by the fistful.

The season had just started, and O'Neal practically had to be carried from his car before games and back to it afterward. He had lost his legendary mobility and hardly could get off the ground, making his defense nonexistent and his offense limited to the basics.

By the end of November, he averaged 24.7 points and 10.9 rebounds, well below his career numbers.

On Christmas Day, he went to the injured list for the first time. In all, he missed 15 games to injury or suspension.

Still, he had his moments. Early in the season, against Horace Grant, Patrick Ewing, Andrew DeClercq and whatever else the Orlando Magic found handy, O'Neal scored 38 points, took 18 rebounds, blocked four shots and reminded everyone what's what in the NBA, and who's who.

"I'm still the baddest bad-feet big man ever," he said, grinning.

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