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Lakers Grind It Out Again

Bryant scores 27 points and Clippers fall for the second time in three days, 106-100. Lakers keep moving up but failing to impress.

March 20, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

The Lakers advanced through another day, their arrival late Friday night at victory and not disaster more than they could ask for on plenty of previous days.

But they're still waiting.

Winning, but waiting.

Playing, but not defending, the lack of clarity in their game still the nagging issue for a team that expected better.

Now four weeks from the playoffs, and miles from having their game ready, the Lakers had just enough to beat the Clippers, 106-100, at Staples Center.

Afterward, Phil Jackson strolled to a podium, leaned slightly into the microphone and spoke for Laker Nation when he said, "Well, we won. That's about all I can say about that game."

The Clippers will be losers again, their 42nd loss ensuring it for the 18th time in two mostly unremarkable, occasionally humorous decades in Los Angeles. The Lakers have done their part, winning 24 of the last 27 games in the series.

Now, the curious turn to the Lakers, the team with the four sure-thing Hall of Famers, the profound championship expectations and the mysterious carefree leanings. They have won four in a row, are 15-4 since the All-Star break and have begun to press the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves ahead of them in the Western Conference, but their play is still far short of vibrant.

That's four weeks to heal Karl Malone's knee, and Shaquille O'Neal's free throws, and all else that ails them. That's four weeks, and what seems to be a lot of work.

"Man, just fine-tuning our game, fine-tuning our offense," Kobe Bryant said. "We just have to continue to press and work through it. We've only had, what, four games together? It's a process."

The Clippers were kind enough to miss some jumpers and free throws, and to not turn their rebound advantage into something harmful to the Lakers.

The Lakers, in turn, were kind enough to play another day beneath their massive potential.

Bryant scored 27 points. For the first time since he sprained his shoulder March 5, he played without the compression shirt that held his shoulder pad in place, and he relied less on his left hand. While he took two or three blows to the shoulder, he held up, scored 10 points in the final four minutes, and, of his shoulder, said, "It's doable."

O'Neal had 18 points, made two free throws inside the final 29 seconds, and took 10 rebounds. All five Laker starters -- the Big Four and Rick Fox, this time -- scored in double figures for the first time since Dec. 28, and the Lakers won for the 26th time in 31 games when at least five of them reach 10 points.

"Boring game," O'Neal observed.

Why?

"Boring team," he said.

Malone, his knee improving but still bothersome, missed seven of his first eight shots, then made four of his last seven. He had 14 points. Payton had 16.

Asked if he expected his knee to be sturdier come playoff time, he said, "I'm assuming before that."

Corey Maggette scored 31 points, 17 from the free-throw line, for the Clippers, who, two nights after falling behind by 17 points in the first half, were less impressed, the Lakers less impressive.

By Friday evening, the shock that the Lakers, ranked 18th in the league in field-goal percentage allowed and first in field-goal attempts ignored, did not practice their defense had worn off.

And so the Clippers had grander expectations themselves, even without Quentin Richardson (back spasms) and Marko Jaric (bruised foot), and though they've now lost 10 of their last 12 games.

As Jackson noted, the Clippers lose games in the last three minutes, Friday going from 92-92 to all but out of it in three or four late possessions.

"Execute better," Maggette said of the alternative. "Don't make any mistakes. And try to foul Shaq out of the game so you can just have Kobe try to go one-on-five."

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