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J.A. Adande

It's Not Pretty, but It's Still Effective

March 31, 2004|J.A. Adande

Guess this is how it will be until the playoffs start, a few moments when the Lakers look as if they'd rather be somewhere else until something or someone gets their attention.

It took a 14-2 deficit to a struggling group of New Orleans Hornets without their two best players to snap the Lakers out of it Tuesday night, resulting in a 107-88 victory that left them thoroughly satisfied, owners of a nine-game winning streak and very much alive in the chase for homecourt advantage in the Western Conference playoffs.

"We're looking pretty good," said Shaquille O'Neal, happy despite a game that brought him only 15 points and the end of his 11-game string of at least 10 rebounds. "If we can keep this up going to the playoffs, we're going to be fine. Right now I'm very proud of the guys. Everybody's playing spirited basketball and looking good."

In the meantime, the Lakers finish the schedule, at times not even providing the best reason to come to Staples Center. The Lakers would have to break out a 180-point game to match the performance Prince put on Monday night before the largest and liveliest concert crowd in the building's 4 1/2-year history.

Prince began with the title track from his new CD "Musicology", then launched into "Let's Go Crazy" and the show took off from there.

The Lakers didn't bring out their best right away either. The beginning was a dreadful collection of turnovers and missed layups. There was nothing better to do than plug in a pair of headphones and listen to what Jeanie Buss, Lisa Leslie, Shaunie O'Neal and Linda Rambis had to say on the "Lakers Living Room" experiment on Fox TV. They weren't too interested in what was happening on the court either so they launched into an extended analysis of Rick Fox's hair.

The Laker offense didn't have any spacing. (It was "crunchy," as the ladies in the "Living Room" said.)

They made only one shot in the first four minutes.

Then they scored 58 points in the next 20 minutes.

At times the offense was beautifully in synch, a quiet blur of the ball moving around without dribbling, with crisp passes leading to layups. They had 11 assists in the first quarter and 10 more in the second -- all this after collecting only 12 assists Sunday.

"Much smoother game," Bryant said Tuesday night. (He had labeled Sunday's effort "disgusting.")

As a result the Lakers had six players score in double digits.

"They were moving the ball, using screens, playing pretty well out there," Coach Phil Jackson said.

Bryant and Jackson were the opposite of Sunday's game, when some players thought Bryant shot too much and the starters played too little. Bryant came out in sharing mode, doling out five assists in the first quarter, even deciding on his way up for a three-point shot to whip the ball underneath to O'Neal for a dunk.

Jackson's rotation was shortened in part by necessity when Kareem Rush went on the injured list because of a bone bruise in his right foot. But when he did go to the bench he was rewarded with 30 points (10 by Devean George) and 11 rebounds (six by Slava Medvedenko). And the second unit actually extended the Laker lead from 14 to 20 in the late stages of the third quarter.

Jackson played O'Neal for 22 minutes and Payton for 20 minutes in the first half, despite two first-quarter fouls on Payton.

In response, Payton played the game Jackson's way. Instead of speeding downcourt at every opportunity the way he did earlier in the season, Payton took his time and allowed the team to set up the offense.

They have said communication was a problem with their inability to stop other teams, but Tuesday they did a lot of talking on the defensive end. Of course, some of it was aimed at the officials for their calls -- or at Ice Cube in his courtside seat, in an attempt to gain some sympathy over the calls.

At one point, Bryant told referee Gary Zielinski four times that a charge that went against him at the other end was a "terrible call." When the Lakers went back on offense Bryant said one more thing, prompting Zielinski to whistle him for a technical foul. The ensuing free throw accounted for the Hornets' only point in the first four minutes of the third quarter.

Still, if the Lakers are yielding more points because of flapping mouths than dragging feet, it's progress.

A blowout victory against an overmatched opponent is a step forward, after too many squeakers against the likes of Orlando, the Clippers and now a Hornet squad without Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn.

The Lakers locked this one up midway through the third quarter.

Marge Hearn, the late Chick Hearn's wife, dropped by the set of the "Laker Living Room" in the fourth quarter. With less than six minutes remaining she said, "This ballgame's in the refrigerator."

Sure felt good to hear a Hearn say those words again -- about as good as hearing Prince play his hits.

*

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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