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Pro Basketball | Diane Pucin

Another Last Shot for Kobe

Time Has Come for This Laker Hit Parade to Stop

March 02, 2002|Diane Pucin

Shaquille O'Neal came to Staples Center on Friday night with a smile on his face. He seemed more eager to give Brad Miller a big hug then a big punch. When Miller was spelled by Jeff Foster, O'Neal put his head on Foster's shoulder and left it there until Foster had to giggle. O'Neal smiled.

For all the knucklehead Laker fans who wanted O'Neal to retaliate with escalating violence, please!

For those who thought O'Neal should have hit Miller harder on Jan. 12 when Miller was playing for the Chicago Bulls and using extracurricular force to impose some sort of control over O'Neal, which caused O'Neal to throw an extracurricular punch at the back of Miller's head ... please!

Violence is not the answer.

Kobe, are you listening?

Such a lack of discipline Bryant showed.

The Lakers beat the Pacers, 96-84, in the big Shaq-Brad Miller rematch. And now we'll be waiting for the Kobe-Reggie Miller rematch. The game was over, the players were walking off the court. Except that Bryant and Miller had a problem with each other. And Bryant threw a punch. And everybody came out throwing punches. Jerseys were torn. Bad words were exchanged. Bryant will probably be serving a suspension.

Over what? Bryant's team had won. Whatever else had happened, Bryant is on the championship team. Miller had a bad game, a bad night and Bryant should have walked off the court without a backward glance.

Have the Lakers learned nothing from Shaq's attack on Brad Miller last month?

Shaq seems to have learned. Shaq played with verve, not anger, Friday night. Shaq played to have fun and not fisticuffs.

Brad Miller may have had blood dripping from his mouth late in the second quarter. Ball boys may have had to mop up the lane and Miller may have had to hold a towel to his mouth while arguing with a heckler. And O'Neal had one of those "Who, me?" make-believe innocent looks on his face as he shot two free throws. Miller got the foul, O'Neal got in the free shot even if the free throw didn't score a direct hit. That's revenge.

Violence is not the answer.

Going to O'Neal seven of the first eight times the Lakers had the ball, that was the answer.

This game between the Lakers and the Pacers, Brad Miller's new team, started like this:

O'Neal hook shot over Brad Miller; O'Neal layup over Brad Miller plus a free throw for a three-point play; O'Neal layup over Brad Miller; O'Neal missing layup over Brad Miller but Robert Horry scoring on the rebound, in effect an assist to O'Neal; O'Neal rim-rattling slam over Brad Miller; Lindsey Hunter miss; O'Neal even bigger slam over Brad Miller.

No words necessary. No punches needed. Revenge exacted. Point made. Kobe? Did you get the point?

But maybe Kobe had gotten the wrong point last month when Laker Coach Phil Jackson defended Shaq. Maybe Kobe got the wrong point when all of Laker fandom seemed to feel Shaq had the right to knock heads first, take names later.

So Kobe threw the first punch against Reggie Miller, and will Jackson be making excuses again? Excuses or not, another Laker star will be missing a game or maybe more for taking violent action.

Shaq had the right idea at the beginning of the evening. He established that he was in no way bothered by playing against Brad Miller now or ever again. If Bryant had a problem with Reggie Miller, he could have addressed it with his basketball in another meeting.

The Lakers don't need this distraction.

Because there was a problem when the Lakers quit throwing it to O'Neal on every possession. The Lakers went ahead, 15-2, when it was all Shaq, all the time. When it wasn't all about Shaq, when it was about Horry and Rick Fox and Derek Fisher and Slava Medvedenko and Lindsey Hunter and sometimes even Bryant, the Pacers joined the game. It got closer and closer.

It became about Ron Artest and his springy legs and strong will, and about another O'Neal, Jermaine, and his long arms, and about Jamaal Tinsley and his fadeaway jump shot and good court sense.

Since Shaq has come back from his toe-induced injury sabbatical, there has been an intense joy in the way he has played.

Did you see the sneaky, secret, one-handed pass Shaq made at the perfect time while Devean George was in full stride, which George was able to convert into a running layup? Smiles all around for that, and on the next play, O'Neal brought the ball up court, a Harlem Globetrotter in the making with his easy, breezy dribbling style.

Laughs all around.

There was not so much laughter when Austin Croshere, once a budding star and now a rather big disappointment for the Pacers, dribbled through Mark Madsen as if Madsen were an apparition and scored a dunk to tie the game.

The Pacers were suddenly made a team of strangers when they made the big trade Feb. 19 by shipping off Jalen Rose, Travis Best and Norm Richardson for Artest, Miller, Ron Mercer and Kevin Ollie. Rose and Best were integral Pacer parts. Yet the Pacer choreography was much quicker, smoother and more entertaining than the mid-game plodding of the Lakers.

Even with the sore toe, Shaq runs with a bounce. The other Lakers seem to have heavy legs. A team having won two straight championships can be expected to find a Friday night game in March something dull and onerous, but soon it must be time for all the Lakers to discover whatever motivation it was Shaq found during his injury timeout.

Instead, Kobe found his inner anger and that's not the right mood as playoff time nears.

Violence is not the answer.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com

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