They've guessed along with Shaquille O'Neal long enough, what with his toe and knee keeping him floor-bound for so long, so when he scores 35 points and takes 14 rebounds on a night he should have, the Lakers will hold their enthusiasm for the rest of him.
"He hasn't shown me the 'Shaq Shimmy' yet," Kobe Bryant said, grinning after the Lakers defeated the Detroit Pistons, 95-85, Thursday night at Staples Center. "I haven't seen the gorilla walk. He's given me the facial expressions, so I know he's about 85%."
These were the elfin Pistons, thick and serious with attitude but undeniably short, and yet there were moments when there was a hint of June in O'Neal's play. A game was again O'Neal's, from the power dunks to the turn-around jumpers to the recognition from Bryant, from one end to the other, on a night when O'Neal called for the basketball and meant it, and the Lakers knew it.
As the Lakers ground toward their sixth consecutive victory and their 13th in 15 games, O'Neal scored 25 points in the second half, 17 in a ferocious third quarter in which he also had seven rebounds. The Pistons braced themselves against his back and shoved as hard as they could, then rallied with weak-side defense that very often arrived late and without much conviction, and O'Neal gathered momentum after a so-so first half.
"I'm starting to get it back," he said. "I'm starting to get my legs back, I'm starting to get my touch back, and guys are looking for me."
Coach Phil Jackson attended the Lakers' shoot-around Thursday morning but stayed home for the game and did not accompany the team to Seattle for tonight's game against the SuperSonics. It appears when he returns, it will be to a team better situated for the playoffs than the one he left two games ago. The Lakers are in seventh place in the Western Conference, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Phoenix Suns and one game behind the Utah Jazz. Forward Samaki Walker, who had sat out three games because of a sprained right ankle, did return, and had six rebounds in 11 minutes.
"I hope we're getting used to winning again," said assistant Jim Cleamons, 2-0 in Jackson's place.
Like they rode Bryant for a month, the Lakers seem to have settled again on O'Neal, who has averaged 13 rebounds and nearly 32 points over his last three games, though they probably won't be too choosy. O'Neal is getting the basketball more often for sure, particularly as Bryant's perimeter game has cooled.
After one of the great shooting streaks in league history, it has been five games since Bryant made as many as half of his shots, so he is again slashing to the rim, again shooting free throws, for the moment deferring to O'Neal.
"I know Shaq, he picks his spots sometimes during the season and especially now," said Bryant, who scored 30 against the Pistons on 10-for-22 shooting. "He really tries to conserve himself for the playoffs or big games. So I wouldn't concern myself too much. I know he's pacing himself."
As the Lakers again looked toward their inside game, that meant O'Neal, and that meant entry passes and, ultimately, that meant a fifth consecutive loss for the Pistons, who have lost the first three games of what is becoming an arduous five-game trip through the Pacific Division. But it's good to be in the Eastern Conference: The Pistons arrived having lost four in a row and having gained a full game in the Central Division standings on the Indiana Pacers, who'd lost six in a row.
The Lakers were forced to play through the broad shoulders of the Pistons, through players such as Ben Wallace and Corliss Williamson, whose methodical, grinding games are rare in the West.
Pounding against Devean George and Rick Fox, Williamson scored 14 points in 14 first-half minutes. He averaged 11.8 points in his first 57 games.
At times, the Lakers stood and complained to referees about the Pistons' aggressive play, while the Pistons went back to the rim.
It is a different style, to be sure, and on more than one possession the Lakers measured the contact rather than go honestly about their game. The Pistons leaned on O'Neal with Clifford Robinson or Wallace or Mehmet Okur, and on Bryant with beefy Michael Curry, and O'Neal and Bryant arrived at halftime having shot four for 10 from the floor.
The style, as it turned out, grew on the Lakers, and O'Neal especially prospered. In a three-possession stretch in the third quarter, O'Neal, with Wallace on his hip, made a turn-around jumper from the left side, another turn-around from the right side, and finally pinned Wallace behind him and dunked.
O'Neal and Bryant got some help from Fox, who had 11 points (making all three of his three-point tries) and a game-high six assists.