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Jackson Has More Work at Hand Now

J.A. Adande

January 15, 2004|J.A. Adande

It's getting crowded in the Laker training room, what with the need to tend to a sprained knee ligament, a sprained shoulder, a strained calf and apparently some hurt feelings.

Phil Jackson became the fastest coach in NBA history to record his 800th win when the Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, and nobody could accuse him of riding the coattails of superstars to this one, not with Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone out with injuries. Jackson's duties were more like repairing super-ego.

This might be his greatest skill, one reason his key players have never outright quit on him or mounted a coup.

Jackson isn't a doctor, something he reiterated Wednesday night. So he tried to heal the only wounds he could help and applied some soothing words to O'Neal's bruised ego.

He took back what he said a day earlier, when he said O'Neal was medically cleared to play and it was up to the Big Fella to determine when he wanted to come back.

"I may have jumped the gun a little bit to say it's up to Shaq to play and made it sound as if he could play tonight or Friday or whenever," Jackson said. "But medically there's nothing that is wrong with him as far as a medical instance, but still he's got too much pressure on the calf to probably play for a while. So we're not projecting any date. We're hopeful that he'll play soon, but we're not projecting any date right now."

On Tuesday, after announcing that Kobe Bryant's sprained shoulder would keep him out for two to three weeks, Jackson put O'Neal's status on a platter for the media. It was as if he didn't want to put the pressure on O'Neal, but wouldn't have minded if the reporters had done it for him.

Well, this one was more than happy to oblige. I've always felt O'Neal is the centerpiece of the Lakers, in more ways than one. That's why, as long as he can get on the court without doing any more damage to his calf, he needs to be out there.

O'Neal was in a sour mood. He really didn't like the part in which some observers questioned the severity of his injury and wondered if it wasn't a way to get back at the organization for not offering that contract extension.

We crossed paths as he left the weight room following a pregame workout.

"That's strike two," O'Neal said, referring to a column last year that called him out for not playing through injuries. "You're killing me."

Another reporter and I tried to relay Jackson's backtracking comments to O'Neal. He wasn't trying to hear it.

O'Neal responded with an obscenity directed at Jackson.

Then he knocked on the door to the coaches' office and entered. Not that I've been around every single minute since Staples Center opened in 1999, but that was the first time I've seen O'Neal go in that room.

It turns out Jackson had summoned him. Jackson wanted to give his explanation to O'Neal directly, to make absolutely sure he heard the clarification that Jackson had just issued to the media.

We'll see if that puts him O'Neal in better spirits.

If O'Neal's mad, that's good -- even if it's at my expense.

"Better you than me," General Manager Mitch Kupchak said.

O'Neal is at his best when he feels he has something to prove. That was the problem last season, which he spent resting on his laurels.

Watch the clinching game from O'Neal's first championship against the Indiana Pacers the next time it comes on NBA TV or ESPN Classic, as it did last weekend. Note the leaner, hungrier O'Neal, dropping 40-plus on the Pacers and shutting down the lane, wanting that ring so badly he was in tears after the final buzzer.

We haven't seen that look around here in a while.

The Lakers need to have a mood list in addition to the injury list. In Wednesday's mood transactions they placed O'Neal on the list and took Gary Payton off it.

Now that he's the lone remaining superstar, Payton put all his issues aside and focused on the big picture.

He immediately got and laughed at a joke that he should be called Patti LaBelle ("On My Own"), then he playfully talked about a chance to pad his statistics.

More seriously, his game against Denver was every bit as good as his game against Cleveland Monday was bad. This time Payton ran the show, made nine of 13 shots and finished with 21 points and six assists. Jackson limited Payton's minutes for the reason no player minds: because his team had a big lead.

Now that the lineup is flooded with less-experienced players the Lakers can't win on talent and basketball savvy alone. On Tuesday, Payton practically took an oath to stick to the offense, and he made good on his word Wednesday, slowing down the pace when necessary and allowing the plays to develop. (Only four of the Lakers' 97 points came on the fastbreak).

Payton said he felt as if he was back in Seattle, when he controlled things.

Now get ready for the next mood-list transaction.

As if the Lakers didn't have enough going on with their soap opera-season, power forward Horace Grant has some pressing real-life drama. His father, Harvey, has gout and Grant said he would fly to Atlanta today to be with him. It appears that Grant will miss at least Friday's game at Sacramento and Saturday's game against the Clippers, which means the Lakers will miss the type of defense and effort that led to 11 Grant rebounds against the Nuggets.

Just another dilemma for Jackson to juggle. If he thought reaching 800 victories was a long, difficult accomplishment, let's see what it takes to get to No. 801.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/Adande.

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