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Lakers Strain to Beat Bulls

O'Neal leaves in the third quarter because of calf injury, then Bryant leads surge to 101-94 victory.

November 22, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

The road problems became Staples Center problems for the Lakers, and Karl Malone's muscle strain became Shaquille O'Neal's, and on Friday night it all nearly became a loss to one of the Eastern Conference's poorer teams.

As it was, Kobe Bryant scored 17 points in the fourth quarter of a game in which the Lakers played determinedly in the first eight minutes and the last eight minutes, and they defeated the Chicago Bulls, 101-94.

Their 22nd consecutive regular-season victory at Staples Center, the 21st as the home team, didn't come free; O'Neal left in the third quarter because of a strained muscle in his right calf and did not return and Malone aggravated his strained left hamstring. Afterward, Phil Jackson raised the possibility O'Neal would sit out at least a game.

"Shaquille asked out of the ballgame in the third quarter and went to the locker room," Jackson said. . "He'll be evaluated [today] and we'll know his status then.

"I'm really not unduly concerned. He might miss a ballgame, he might miss a couple. It more than likely wasn't an extreme tear or pull. But I'm not a medical doctor."

O'Neal slipped out through the arena kitchen and did not speak to reporters. He has sat out 15 games in each of the past two seasons, most due to injuries to his feet and legs.

Gary Payton said he hoped O'Neal would not miss Sunday's game against Memphis.

But, he added, "If it happens, you gotta deal with it."

Malone felt a twinge in his hamstring when he dived for a fourth-quarter loose ball. He guaranteed he'd play Sunday. Since he suffered the strain Nov. 12 against Toronto, Malone has averaged 15.8 points and 12.3 rebounds.

"When I suit up, I play," said Malone, who had 14 points and 18 rebounds Friday. "It's what I've done for a lot of years."

The Lakers pushed through both for their 10th victory, an awkward little thing saved in part by Bryant, who took 11 shots and went to the free-throw line seven times in the fourth quarter.

He scored 28 points and made six of those 11 field-goal attempts in the final quarter to lead the Lakers back from a four-point deficit. Payton had 15 points and Bryon Russell 12. Jamal Crawford scored 23 points off the bench for the Bulls, who lost their fourth consecutive game.

"When I have to," Bryant said, "I step out and have a game like this to help us win a ballgame. But it's not really important to me."

O'Neal left the game just short of five minutes in the third quarter. He sat on the bench and trainer Gary Vitti crouched before him, and every couple of minutes O'Neal would stand up and move slightly and grimace.

During a timeout, O'Neal and Vitti left the floor, bound for an examination and treatment.

On the floor, the Bulls continued to press their advantages in urgency and enthusiasm, adding the middle to that, and they scored 55 points in the first half. In 26 halves of basketball, the Lakers have given up 50 or more points in nine. And then Bryant took the ball in the final minutes, and hung and shot and won.

The Bulls played amid a swirl of rumors that Jalen Rose and/or Donyell Marshall would be traded to the Toronto Raptors and bringing another teammate or two with them, a situation Jackson called "very, very worrisome for a coach who's on the other side of it," meaning him.

It's not as if the Bulls didn't have enough problems, what with their eight losses and a killer trip (Phoenix, L.A., Sacramento, Dallas, San Antonio) coming down around them.

Reports speculated the Bulls could finish the trip with Jerome Williams or Antonio Davis, not to mention a new coach, as Bill Cartwright's job also had begun to have a temporary feel to it.

And, yet, the game was still in doubt when Bryant grew assertive.

"I started out giving him opportunities in the offensive sequences," Jackson said. "He got hot and his teammates started feeding him the ball, more than I would have liked. As hot as he was, I thought there was a little overkill out there. But that'll happen in the process. We were able to win the ballgame because of his efforts."



Safe at Home

Lakers at Staples Center during their three championship seasons and this season:

*--* REC. FIRST LOSS WIN% 1999-2000 36-5 Nov. 6 vs.Portland 878 2000-2001 31-10 Nov. 7 vs. Houston 756 2001-2002 34-7 Nov. 16 vs. Phoenix 829 2003-2004 6-0 Have not lost 1.000


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