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Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Good Part Still to Come for Lakers

November 19, 2003|Mark Heisler

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Once, Phil Jackson had a team that had all of its conflicts worked out, so if the big guys still fought all the time, at least it was just with their front office and not each other. And if they knew that nothing was forever, at least they were agreed that when they went, they'd go together.

But then Phil left Chicago.

Among his current Lakers, there are no guarantees, not winning a title or coming back to defend it. As for the greatness predicted for them when Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined up to give them four potential Hall of Famers instead of two, let's just say they're not quite there.

At this early date, which only seems like it should be later, they're occasionally awesome but hardly immortal. They may have won their last 20 at home, but they've lost their last three on the road too.

How are good are they, really, between crises?

How can you tell until they stop having crises?

Their artistry and power can be breathtaking, but they defend intermittently and their outside shooting has gone ice-cold. Then for the maraschino cherry atop Jackson's sundae, the question of their chemistry seems to bob to the surface every trip and did again when Kobe Bryant did a rare no-show after Tuesday night's game, which was not one of the top 500 in his career, leaving behind a dressing room that was somber, indeed, for a team that still leads the West at 8-3.

No, these aren't the good times yet.

Before the Lakers looked all too human in a 106-96 loss to the Detroit Pistons, Jackson was asked whether he thought they were over the hump, emotionally and spiritually.

Wisely, or clairvoyantly, he said no.

"I think there's still plenty we have to overcome," Jackson said. "This is our fifth year as a group together and coaching here. There's been tough Decembers, we've gotten off to great starts three out of the four years and then had tough late Decembers and Januarys...."

After this season's 5-0 start invoked visions of 82-0, or at least 81-1, the Lakers have gone 3-3, so this has already turned into a slow mid-November.

Before the arrival of the ferocious Payton and Malone, the Lakers had some fierce competitors -- Bryant, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox -- but not enough. Then there was Shaquille O'Neal, who was always dominating but wasn't in shape until spring.

Now, O'Neal is leaner and the Lakers have enough fighting spirit. However, Bryant has problems larger than the game, and they have a distraction that won't go away.

Their appearance still sets the countryside to trembling and did again Tuesday when reporters from the New York Times, New York Daily News, Washington Post, Philadelphia Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times joined the press corps.

The David facing this Goliath was the Pistons, who had just run afoul of the Lakers in Los Angeles.

As he had at Staples Center, Coach Larry Brown tried to get his center, Elden Campbell, to go right at O'Neal.

As he had in Los Angeles, Campbell picked up two quick fouls in the first four minutes and had to go right to the bench.

That left only 6-10 Mehmet Okur, a power forward, and Ben Wallace, who's 6-7 with his hair down, to deal with Shaq.

Another 7-footer, Zeljko Rebraca, was hurt, obliging Brown to consider using rookie Darko Milicic.

"Darko's going to start playing," Brown said before the game, laughing, "but I don't know if tonight's a good night to put him in."

Actually, Brown could have found a spot, because O'Neal got in deeper and deeper foul trouble, and Jackson kept him on the floor, anyway, playing chicken with the referees.

In the end, 31 minutes' worth of O'Neal wasn't enough. The Lakers, who gave up an average of 82 points in their last three wins, gave up 106. And Malone tweaked a hamstring, which is never good news for a 40-year-old NBA player.

Jackson says they're trying to develop emotional momentum -- "A good feeling type of thing, that you can have ... stored up so that in tough days you have some reserve to go on when you get in a losing streak, or when things go tough for individuals or the team itself."

They'll have to start over on that project tonight in New York.

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