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The Heart of a Champion

With Jackson questionable because of angioplasty, Lakers can expect to have George back in the lineup after his inspirational Game 3.

May 11, 2003|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

A sheepish look crossed forward Devean George's face when the name Willis Reed was run past him Saturday afternoon.

"It wasn't like that," he said.

No, it wasn't. Reed limped down a tunnel onto the court at New York's Madison Square Garden 33 years ago, as his Knicks and the Lakers warmed up for Game 7 of the NBA Finals. A thigh injury had eliminated the Knick center from that game in everybody's mind.

Everybody, that is, except Reed.

With the Garden in an emotional uproar, Reed started and scored the first four points. He didn't score again, but the lift he provided carried his team to victory and the championship.

The stakes were a little lower Friday at Staples Center. Down, 2-0, to the San Antonio Spurs in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals, the Lakers' hope for a fourth consecutive NBA title seemed to have grown alarmingly faint.

What the Lakers didn't know is that hours later, this season of struggle would take another emotional hit when Coach Phil Jackson would undergo an angioplasty to open up a blocked artery in his heart. While the artery, blocked more than 90%, was cleared, Jackson's status for today's game at Staples Center is uncertain.

This much was certain Friday night. With forward Rick Fox out of the playoffs because of a torn tendon and George seemingly out indefinitely because of a sprained left ankle that had left him writhing on the floor Monday night in Game 1, the Lakers looked woefully thin against the deep bench of the Spurs.

When George's name was put in the starting lineup, reaction around Staples was a reasonable facsimile to that three decades ago in the Garden.

And when George made his first two shots and wound up with 13 points, the result was much the same as it had been for the Knicks, the Lakers going on a 19-4 run en route to a 110-95 victory that, while still leaving the Lakers a game back heading into Game 4 today, seemingly has tilted the psychological edge back to the three-time defending champions and perhaps salvaged their season.

"Well," George said grudgingly, "I guess you could compare it to Reed."

And to think Jackson wasn't going to let George play Friday night.

The Laker forward first broached the subject at Friday morning's shoot-around.

"The coach didn't believe I could move and slide," George said.

George came back to Jackson in the afternoon before the game, but the answer was still no. A tentative no this time.

"He still wasn't convinced," George said. "I guess he was looking out for me long-term."

Jackson agreed to let George go out and warm up. The coach then conferred with trainer Gary Vitti and finally relented.

George reported stiffness in the ankle Saturday but guaranteed he'd be ready today.

George wasn't the only difference in the Lakers on Friday. They played ferocious defense and, on offense, center Shaquille O'Neal came out from under the basket, played the high post and directed the triangle offense, more of a traffic cop than an enforcer. He still had 21 points and 16 rebounds, but he also handed out eight assists.

"Phil told me to keep everybody involved," O'Neal said.

"This [high-post look] affords opportunities for more driving lanes, more passing lanes," said assistant coach Jim Cleamons, who'll fill Jackson's role today if the head coach is not able to return.

"The wonderful thing about [assistant coach] Tex [Winter's triangle] offense is that it can be adjusted. In Chicago, we ran it all over the place."

Such adjustments are soon forgotten as new ones are made in ensuing games.

What won't be forgotten is George's seemingly miraculous return.

Teammate Kobe Bryant didn't agree that Reed and George should be compared.

"Reed," Bryant said, "didn't score 13 points."

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