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Bryant Provides Lakers With Shot of Old Confidence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Into the start of the Danny Ainge era with the Phoenix Suns, which seemed a lot like the end of the Cotton Fitzsimmons era, stepped a newcomer of similar background Sunday night, young and very inexperienced compared to his colleagues but debuting nonetheless.

OK, so Kobe Bryant had played in eight games, if that’s what you want to call 59 minutes loaded down by fouls, turnovers and forced shots. But this was his first real appearance, 14 minutes that he turned into four three-point baskets in six tries and 16 points to help the Lakers to a 102-88 victory before 19,023 at America West Arena, ruining Ainge’s coaching debut and dropping the Suns to 0-9.

A star is born . . . again.

“I was very happy with Kobe,” Coach Del Harris said. “He made a couple turnovers, but he was terrific. It’s a big step forward for Kobe.”

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And well-timed. About three hours earlier, Harris was taking note of Bryant’s struggles dealing with the slow start, the one that went from being earmarked for greatness by many around the league, not only the Lakers, and then turned into reality of another kind.

He got hurt before the regular season started, twice.

He made mistakes that got him pulled.

He was not The Guy. He was a guy.

“Being a competitive guy, he’s impatient and he gets frustrated,” Harris said. “And being 18 years old, he sometimes pouts.

“You can just tell with his body language and some of his expressions and such. It’s understandable. But we want him to grow through that quickly. As he comes out and grows through his mistakes, he will get playing time based on how he does.

“And don’t get me wrong. Those are just little things from time to time. He’s working at it. I certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression that he’s a bad-attitude kid, because he’s not.”

Not even close. Which is also what Bryant says about any claims that he had been laboring emotionally to deal with his poor play of the first eight games: not even close.

“I’m never down,” he said. “I think I’m the type of person who always goes out and gives 110%. My confidence level was never shaky.”

Either way, this helped. Not just a night of offense--five of eight from the field--but of playing a key role as the Lakers won for the second game in a row without Shaquille O’Neal getting any records.

It wasn’t like that as recently as Tuesday, when O’Neal tied the Laker mark with nine baskets in the first quarter at Houston. His 20 points in the quarter were four shy of the club standard set by some guys named West and Baylor. O’Neal had 34 that game, 30 the next.

Then he got 18 against the Clippers on Friday, playing 29 minutes because of foul problems. He was still third in the league in scoring, at 25.8, heading into the Phoenix game.

Against the Suns, he avoided the familiar foul trouble and went 40 minutes, but took only 12 shots, making seven. Not that O’Neal wasn’t a force--13 rebounds is slightly better than his season average--but he didn’t dominate on the scoreboard, finishing with a modest 16 points, and the Lakers won again, significant no matter the opponent.

“It is,” Harris said. “Shaq is going to have bigger nights against bigger, stronger teams. The smaller teams, the ones with the down records, they’ve got to go gang up on him every night. Phoenix had to do that. And as a team player, he gives the ball up.”

So, indirectly, maybe O’Neal is still overpowering.

“If you look at it, Shaq is carrying us,” guard Eddie Jones said. “He may not be getting the big offensive numbers. But he’s getting big rebounding numbers and he’s kicking the ball out. His presence alone makes a definite impact.”

Much the way Jones has. The latest in what has become a string of impressive games in his great start consisted of 18 points, along with nine rebounds and six assists, to pace the Lakers in scoring for the second game in a row.

Bryant and O’Neal were next at 16 each, followed by 15 from Nick Van Exel and 14 from Byron Scott, nine of which came in the fourth quarter to hold off a brief rally that got Phoenix within five with 9:22 remaining, but no closer.

* NEW ERA: It didn’t take long for always expressive Danny Ainge to draw his first technical foul as coach of the Phoenix Suns. C12

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Season of Expectations

The Lakers acquired nine new players this season, including Shaquille O’Neal and his $120-million contract. In turn, with big acquisitions come big expectations. Throughout the season, The Times will monitor O’Neal’s numbers along with how the team compares to some of the best Laker teams in history.

GAME 10 OF 82

* Record 7-3

* Standing 2nd place

Pacific Division

1996-97 LAKERS VS. THE BEST LAKER TEAMS

*--*

Year Gm. 10 Overall 1987-88 8-2 62-20 1986-87 9-1 65-17 1984-85 5-5 62-20 1979-80 7-3 60-22 1971-72 7-3 69-13

*--*

Note: The five teams above all won NBA championships

THE SHAQ SCOREBOARD

Basketball Numbers

* Sunday’s Game:

*--*

Min FG FT Reb Blk Pts 40 7-12 2-5 13 0 16

*--*

* 1996-97 Season Averages:

*--*

Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 38.2 .602 .532 12.5 2.4 24.8

*--*

* 1995-96 Season Averages:

*--*

Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 36.0 .573 .487 11.0 2.1 26.6

*--*

Money Numbers

* Sunday’s Salary: $130,658.53

* Season Totals $1,306,585.30

* FACTOID: Before the 10th game of the 1971-72 season, the Lakers named Wilt Chamberlain the second captain in team history, replacing the newly retired Elgin Baylor, and the team began its record 33-game winning streak with a 110-106 victory over the Baltimore Bullets. Chamberlain had 25 rebounds, and Gail Goodrich scored 31 points.


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