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George's injury makes Lakers' depth pool that much shallower. Jackson must improvise, which means more time for Shaw, but probably not for rookies.

May 07, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

San Antonio — If the world thinks the Lakers look old when they lose, it ought to see them when they practice after a loss.

Down a game.

Down two small forwards.

The billboard downtown screaming, "Spurs 1, Lakers 0." The paper's headline reading, "There's One."

The Lakers were in the middle of it, Devean George sitting with one foot up and a basketball in his lap, Rick Fox 10 chairs away, also with a foot up. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant were spaced on the floor of SBC Center on Tuesday afternoon so questions of doom wouldn't overlap too much, then stressing all was well one game into the Western Conference semifinals against San Antonio.

While outside it was so hot the drizzle turned to mist almost before it hit the pavement, inside the ever-in-peril Laker four-peat threatened to do the same. George is not expected to play tonight in Game 2. He left the arena on crutches Monday night, not long after the Spurs' 87-82 victory, and arrived the same way Tuesday morning.

"I'm going to stay positive with this," he said. "I should be fine by the time the series is over if I make progress like I did from last night to today."

As Coach Phil Jackson pointed out, however, the series was not built for recovery. For as long as they go, the Lakers and Spurs will play every other day.

Meantime, the Laker coaching staff was devising plans to build a small forward using spare parts from the bench, from its shooting guards and power forwards. It appears Jackson will move Bryant to the front court and start Brian Shaw at shooting guard, though other discussions have had Robert Horry moving from power forward to small forward, leaving Bryant as is, and giving the start at power forward to Mark Madsen.

The concern would be less for the starting lineup than for the team's depth, which as of this morning consists of, well, Madsen. For various reasons of preference and strategy, Jackson had long ago given up on meaningful minutes for Samaki Walker, Slava Medvedenko, Jannero Pargo and Kareem Rush. On Tuesday afternoon, while the front-line players chatted with great migrating bands of reporters, those four players and Madsen were on the other end of the floor, earnestly running through sets in the triangle offense.

"[I have] very little confidence in the rookies," Jackson said, stealing a glance down the floor. "They're rookies, after all.... But their rookie, [Manu] Ginobili is playing pretty well for them, isn't he? So we're going to ask our rookies to come out and match that if they get an opportunity.

"I'm not worried about them. I'm worried about Kobe and Shaq involving the rest of the team. I think that's a position we insist they get our other players involved. That's important. We know they can do the job and carry us, but it's not going to break us free and put us over the top. They've got to bring in the defense and find those other players. The other players' responsibility is to step up and make the shots."

For every solution to their injuries and sudden loss of manpower, there arose another issue. For example, if Shaw starts, would they lose all sense of normalness on their bench? If the Spurs continue to press full court, and assuming Rush hasn't become a ballhandler overnight, could Rush play small forward? Can Horry, who hasn't purposely played small forward in a couple of years, defend the slighter, quicker Spur small forwards, Stephen Jackson and Bruce Bowen?

On the last point, the Lakers believe he can. Both are spot-up shooters, good shooters, but not generally scorers.

"I can get away with it," Horry said. "They don't have a true small forward."

Asked Tuesday to name his starting lineup, Phil Jackson shook his head. He had three advantages over the Spurs: O'Neal, Bryant, and an alignment that, for another day, Spur Coach Gregg Popovich could only guess at, "something in my back pocket," he said.

"I'm not telling you," Jackson said. "It's none of your business. It's the scorer's business five minutes before the game."

So, Shaw?

"I don't know," he said. "Why would he start? He's 40 years old, isn't he? Or 37 years old.... And, well, there's Robert Horry at small forward. We talked about that."

Jackson hadn't yet gotten George's screams out of his head, and his offense had just made fewer than 40% of its shots for a fourth time in the playoffs, and his Lakers had lost a fifth consecutive game to the Spurs.

Then he blamed the referees, calling a 35-12 free-throw disparity "ridiculous," in a game in which O'Neal played and the Spurs clung to Bryant.

Yet, ultimately, Jackson dismissed it all, sort of. He said he believed they could win here, against this team, with or without George, already down Fox, small forwards dropping like, well, excuses in May.

"We're here to win one game," Jackson said.

They'll start again with a core group of six players, not 48 hours after Jackson turned his back on another injury and quietly cursed. They'll start again having patched a lineup together, looking old again, looking vulnerable, all the usual things.

"So?" asked Bryant, the toughest among them. "We take it for what it is. We don't dwell on it. We don't think about it. It is what it is. We'll get Devean back shortly. In the time being, we'll move on and do our best without him.

"There's nothing that should be shaking our confidence right now. It's a seven-game series. We played poorly in Game 1. That's it."

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