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Fast-Feud Diet Works | No Bryant, but Malone, Payton
spark Lakers' opening victory

October 29, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

It was time for the Lakers to play basketball, time for Karl Malone and Gary Payton to step from between their glaring teammates and onto the court. Tuesday night came in time to remind them all what they were all doing here.

It was going to be about the basketball when Malone and Payton said in July they'd come for about what it would cost to get a so-so NBA shooting guard ... combined. So, four months later, in a sold-out Staples Center, Malone and Payton stood beside Shaquille O'Neal and, together, they defeated the Dallas Mavericks, 109-93, in the season opener for both teams.

All five Laker starters -- none of them Kobe Bryant -- scored in double figures, none more than Payton's 21 points, none fewer than Malone's 15. O'Neal had 16 and nine rebounds. Malone had 10 rebounds and nine assists, Payton nine assists and seven rebounds, in a game in which they never trailed.

Coach Phil Jackson praised "the resilience of the veterans that we have on our team," and said he was "very pleased," a good enough start considering all they'd been through.

Bryant, recovering from knee surgery, did not play. With 17 seconds left in the third quarter, however, Bryant, wearing a red T-shirt, did walk through the tunnel and sat on the bench.

When the quarter ended, and with the Lakers ahead, 86-67, Bryant touched hands with a few teammates and he smiled at the attention. The fourth quarter began, everyone fell back into the folding chairs, and O'Neal and Bryant found themselves beside each other. O'Neal left without speaking to reporters. Bryant called the feud over with, and everyone agreed hopefully.

"All this other [stuff] doesn't matter to me," Malone said. "Everybody made the issue bigger than it was. When we step on the floor, guys have a goal, and that's winning ballgames."

Said Payton: "It's a family feud. One hour and it's over."

For a night, the Big Four were three. Malone started at power forward, beside O'Neal, just as he envisioned at the end of last season. Payton started in the backcourt. O'Neal, healthy again and slimmer after finishing last season on a sore knee, played mostly between them, seemingly satisfied to flip passes to the perimeter, occasionally opting to back toward the basket against one of the Mavericks' overmatched centers.

But, if the first game taught the Lakers anything, it was that while it may be anybody else's team, it is Payton's ball.

Payton, who pushes the ball unlike any point guard in Los Angeles since Magic Johnson, had five assists after one quarter as a Laker. He fed O'Neal for a dunk, Devean George on a fastbreak, Bryon Russell for a three, Fisher for a mid-range jumper and O'Neal for an alley-oop dunk, all before the Laker Girls did their first extended number of the season.

The Lakers led 8-0 and 17-4 and 26-10. They led by as many as 14 in the second quarter, 19 in the third and 19 in the fourth against a Maverick team that won 60 games last season.

"I thought he was really a driving force," Jackson said of Payton. "At one time, he said, 'Do you want me to slow the ball down or you think these guys can run with me?' I said, 'Keep on making them run with you.' "

Late in the third quarter, Payton stood at the top of the key, the basketball tucked under one arm, his other hand on his hip. He wore that expression -- somewhere between disdain and bemusement -- and everything stopped. His world.

"One of those things," Payton said, grinning. "They appreciated the way we were playing, hustling out there."

The crowd stood up and screamed in delight. Then Payton passed the ball, circled to the baseline, took a return pass and scored on a reverse layup.

Laker fans, it seemed, had been waiting.

Hours before, they had opened the doors to Staples Center and found the visibility wasn't too good in there, either.

Then, for the first time in four years, the Lakers began their season without a ring ceremony.

After two of the more trying days in recent Laker history, the franchise took a breath and started its season, Jackson not at all sure what they'd all gotten themselves into.

"I would guess that of all the things that you wouldn't want to have happen as a coach, this is one of them," Jackson had said. "I think that, still and all, it's a very interesting group of guys that are very professional. When you have professional guys, they've been through all kinds of things in their career. They've played thousands of games between them. So, I anticipate they'll be ready to play a game tonight."

But, soon enough, the standing ovations were plentiful. Near the end of the fourth quarter, his first game done, Malone was carried from the floor with one. Payton, too. O'Neal, a minute later, got his, and a pat on the head from Bryant. They all smiled, touched hands. They had gotten to the basketball part, and it was what they had hoped.

"Early in the game, in the huddle, Shaq says, 'Are you all right?' " Malone recalled with a smile. "I said, 'I'm not used to them cheering me.' Shaq says, 'You with us now. Get out of the twilight zone.' "

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