Ceballos Has Bench-Mark Night in Loss

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dancing Barry lives here now, operating under the name Magic Barry but working the same act at Charlotte Coliseum that made him an attraction around the Forum in the '80s. Same guy, different place.

So is Cedric Ceballos for the Lakers in the spring of '96. Same guy, though maybe humbled by the hard-line treatment from teammates, but operating from a different place: the bench.

That was his role again Tuesday night, but this time he looked like the Ceballos of old, proving very effective inside and leading the offense. He did it well enough to score a game-high 35 points on 14-for-22 shooting and grab 11 rebounds in 35 minutes, but that could only keep the Lakers close while they combined to shoot 37.2% in a 102-97 loss to the Charlotte Hornets before 24,042.

It was Ceballos' second-biggest offensive performance of the season, behind only the 38-point effort Nov. 21 against Portland. But compared to recent events, it was a huge show- ing that provided the Lakers with a bright spot, even as their four-game winning streak came to an end. It was the first real sign of what kind of impact he can have as a reserve now that it has become apparent he will probably finish the season in that role.

"Cedric has already proven before in his career that he can be a tremendous player coming off the bench," Coach Del Harris said, referring to Ceballos' time with the Phoenix Suns. "He put a stamp on that tonight. He was tremendous."

Ceballos lost his job as the starting small forward to Magic Johnson--who didn't want it in the first place--by going AWOL for four days and two games. When he returned for the first leg on this six-game Eastern swing, Harris kept him on the bench.

By the end of the second game, after impressive victories over Orlando and Miami, Harris had no intention of giving Ceballos his job back and shaking up the lineup again. He would be a sixth man, not The Man.

Through the first four games of the trip, Ceballos averaged 10 points, 4.8 rebounds and 19.3 minutes and shot 48.5%, all significant drops from his season-long numbers. The outside shot, never a strength to begin with, seemed to have no rhythm, although he disagrees with such a notion. After reaching double figures in scoring in 67 consecutive outings, he had failed to score 10 points four of eight times, going back to when he was starting.

At least the wounds were healing. Teammates treated him as one of their own on the court, even though some were still angry and wondering why he wouldn't address the team about walking out. That final step came Thursday evening, almost four full days after returning, in the strangest of places: a bus parked in the driveway of the hotel in Atlanta.

The Lakers had just flown in from Miami and were about to check in at the next stop. Coaches and staff disembarked, but the players remained. Ceballos talked for only a couple minutes, but that was all it took. He apologized and seemed to mean it, and the episode drifted more into the past tense.

Then came Tuesday, with the Lakers looking to avenge a distraction-filled home loss to the Hornets from eight days earlier, the night Ceballos re-appeared but did not play. He scored 10 points in the final five minutes of the third quarter, three times grabbing an offensive rebound and going right back up for a lay-in.

Then he made a 17-footer, finished a fast break with a driving layup and scored again inside after a pass from Elden Campbell. Sedale Threatt made two free throws, but Ceballos stepped up again, missing a layup but putting his own miss back in. By the time the streak was over, Ceballos had scored 20 of the Lakers' 27 points.

"I was already back," he said. "Maybe the more minutes I played, the better I got, more back in sync."

He's more like the offensive spark off the bench the Lakers need him to become on a consistent basis, a role that comes a season after he made the all-star game. It's a role he insists he does not mind.

"Not at all," Ceballos said. "It's not a situation where it was taken away. I had made a mistake. The mistake was unfortunate, but you've got to stay within the system."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Magic Marker

Tracking Magic Johnson's comeback

TUESDAY'S GAME

*--*

Min. FG FT Pts. Reb. Ast. 38 0-4 (.000) 10-11 (.909) 10 6 10

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SEASON AVERAGES

*--*

Min. FG% FT% Pts. Reb. Ast. 30.0 .479 .867 15.3 5.7 7.0

*--*

CAREER AVERAGES

*--*

Min. FG% FT% Pts. Reb. Ast. 36.9 .521 .848 19.7 7.3 11.4

*--*

Career averages before comeback

RECORD

LAKERS BEFORE MAGIC: 24-18 (.571)

LAKERS WITH MAGIC: 21-8 (.721)

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