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Lakers Clear Air for New Take-Off

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Lakers were in the air Thursday when they decided to clear the air, with team captain Nick Van Exel calling a players-only meeting during the off-day flight from Boston to Detroit in hopes that it could generate a new attitude that would also mean a new start. If not, maybe they could at least compile a list of who shouldn’t be allowed near sharp objects.

Then came the chance to prove it did some good. Friday night.

What transpired, in what the Lakers considered their second season opener, was an 84-76 victory over the Detroit Pistons before 21,454 at the Palace of Auburn Hills, their best win in about 2 1/2 weeks and one of the few sources of real pride in about as long. Power lunches all around.

“They played hard and I’m still coach,” Del Harris said. “What the heck, it was a good meeting.”

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At least so far. These are, of course, the same Lakers who began the season, or that other season that everyone else goes by, with the same enthusiasm. That lasted all of a month.

There were questions about the rotation.

There were struggles to score.

There were the Raptors . . . and the Hornets . . . and the Spurs . . . and, finally, the Celtics. That was Wednesday.

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So what transpired Thursday was about 30 minutes in length but nearly 30 days in coming.

“A lot of the guys were getting frustrated,” said Byron Scott, another captain. “When you lose some games you feel you should win, it’s going to be frustrating. It [the meeting] was a good thing. We cleared the air on a lot of things that needed to be said.

“There were some things we felt we had to discuss as a team. A lot of people had some things they felt they wanted to get off their chest. That allowed us to make a clean slate and get a fresh start.”

Said Van Exel: “We got a couple things straight. You could tell we were energized tonight. There was a lot of talking out there. Guys were communicating. And having fun. It was just a matter of us pulling it together. We know what kind of team we have.”

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On this night, the kind that could beat an opponent whose only other losses in 14 games have come against the Bulls and the Hornets when superstar Grant Hill played only the first quarter because of a sprained wrist.

It came from contributions on several fronts. Shaquille O’Neal had 27 points and 11 rebounds, although also seven turnovers. Eddie Jones got in early foul trouble and played 32 minutes, practically a night off considering he was averaging 40.9 coming in, and still finished with 20 points and tied an NBA record by making at least two three-pointers for the 22nd consecutive regular-season game. Van Exel made three of 11 shots, but he had 10 assists without a turnover.

And then there was the Laker defense, holding Detroit to its lowest point total of the season. The Pistons did their part by missing many second-chance opportunities inside, and just pretty much missing from everywhere--they shot 22.7% the first quarter, 28.9% before intermission and 34.2% for the game.

“I think our defense was good,” Harris said of the first half. “But on the other hand, I don’t think anyone’s defense is that good.”

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To think it was barely good enough, what with the Pistons still within 76-71 with 2:07 remaining after being down by 12 with 4 1/2 minutes left. The Lakers had gone nearly four minutes without a point.

But then Jones made a three-point basket with 1:48 to play, his second of the final quarter, allowing the Lakers to change the momentum. The teams mostly traded free throws the rest of the way, Jones making three to score 13 points in the quarter.

“Yeah, we sputtered a bit down to the wire,” Harris said after the Lakers went 2-1 on the brief Eastern swing, their second of the opening month. “But we’ll take hard play and defense right now.”

Just as good a way as any to start a season.

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(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 17 OF 82

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* Record 11-6

* Standing 2nd place

Pacific Division

1996-97 LAKERS VS. THE BEST LAKER TEAMS

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*--*

Year Gm. 17 Overall 1987-88 11-6 62-20 1986-87 14-3 65-17 1984-85 11-6 62-20 1979-80 12-5 60-22 1971-72 14-3 69-13

*--*

Note: The five teams above all won NBA championships

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THE SHAQ SCOREBOARD

Basketball Numbers

* Friday’s Game:

*--*

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Min FG FT Reb Blk Pts 42 11-19 5-12 11 0 27

*--*

* 1996-97 Season Averages: *--*

Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 38.9 .605 .443 13.2 2.4 24.9

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*--*

* 1995-96 Season Averages: *--*

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

*--*

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Money Numbers

* Friday’s Salary: $130,658.53

* Season Totals: $2,221,195.01

* FACTOID: Game 17 of the 1987-88 season featured the Lakers’ fourth loss in their last five games, 120-122 in overtime to Washington. “I don’t know if the league is catching up, or it’s us,” Magic Johnson (30 points and 14 assists) said.

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