The Grinch went for Christmas. Eddie Jones steals everything else.
The Laker guard has turned kleptomania into such an art, such a sure thing, such a Ruthian thing, that he's started calling his shots. Before Sunday night's game at the Forum, he said he would get seven more steals, even asking teammates if they wanted to bet.
Seven steals later, he was right, not to mention a key part of the 115-102 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers before 17,505 that also included 20 points and six assists from Jones and a game-high 28 points from Shaquille O'Neal.
But he wasn't richer. Fellow Lakers know better by now than to let Jones steal their money too.
"He's said it the last four or five games," Byron Scott said. "He calls how many he's going to get."
As if the act itself isn't impressive enough.
"He's one of the best I've ever seen," said Scott, the 14th-year veteran and Jones' backup at shooting guard.
Not only No. 1 in the league in the department, after finishing eighth last season and sixth in 1995-96 as a rookie, Jones has 16 steals in the last three games, 29 in the last seven and 70 in the last 19, the latter worth an average of 3.68 per game. That has pushed him to 2.96 for the campaign.
And rolling a seven doesn't even set the standard for this season. He had a career-high eight on Nov. 26 . . . against the 76ers.
"I can't even explain it," Jones, who has another Philadelphia connection because he starred at Temple, said of his amazing streak. "I told some guys I'm going to have a lot of steals tonight. You can just tell.
"When you face teams that are very young, teams that like to run and gun, you know you're going to get a lot of them. They force the issue. I'm just around the ball so much."
Which explains the run of at least two steals in each of the last 10 games, and the seven times in 1996-97 when he has had at least five thefts.
Nine days ago, he had four at Minnesota.
Wednesday, he had five at Phoenix.
Friday, four against Boston.
Then came Sunday. It took all of the first 76er possession, about 35 seconds in: bad pass by Clarence Weatherspoon, interception by Jones.
"That's one!" he shouted at the Laker bench as he ran upcourt.
It became two. Jones turned it into a layup.
He already had five steals by halftime. He should have been laying odds in the locker room.
"It's like you can feel that nobody out there is going to get by you," Jones said later. "You don't care how talented the guy is. My will is, I'm not going to let it happen. I'm going to try and get an offensive foul or a steal. Plus, it's easier for me because of Shaq back there."
As a backstop, in case Jones' man gets by him and into the lane. Of course, O'Neal is there for other reasons too.
It was a modest beginning for all the Lakers against a team they already beat by 12 points on the road, and for O'Neal in particular. They led by only one, at 54-53, by intermission, and, despite a 90-pound advantage against defender Scott Williams, Shaq had only 10 points and three rebounds. Playing only 11 minutes because of three fouls was the obvious reason.
O'Neal broke out in the third quarter, getting 12 points and five rebounds, three fewer boards than the entire 76er team. That helped the Lakers move ahead by as many as 11 points before going into the final period with an 85-75 lead.
There were chances to put the game away soon after, like when the cushion grew to 17, at 100-83 with 8:03 remaining, but that never happened. It rarely does with these Lakers. A little more than two minutes later, Philadelphia was within striking distance, down by only nine.
"We were playing well for three quarters," 76er Coach Johnny Davis said. "We need to play well that stretch of 12 minutes, whether it be the last quarter or part of the third and part of the fourth quarter."
In other words, they made it interesting enough for the fans, just not interesting enough to seriously threaten the Lakers, whose lead was still nine with 1:57 left, but would go no lower.
"Tonight, we just stayed around and stayed around and we never had that little push," said Philadelphia's Jerry Stackhouse, who, along with Allen Iverson, had a team-high 21 points.
"Once we get that little edge when we play a tight game, then that is what we can start to build with mentally. It's almost like we're waiting for the other team to take the initiative and then we try to catch up in the end."
(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 31 OF 82
* Record 22-9
* Standing 1st place
1996-97 LAKERS VS. THE BEST LAKER TEAMS
Year Gm. 30 Overall 1987-88 25-6 62-20 1986-87 25-6 65-17 1984-85 21-10 62-20 1979-80 21-10 60-22 1971-72 28-3 69-13
Note: The five teams above all won NBA championships
THE SHAQ SCOREBOARD
* Sunday's Game:
Min FG FT Reb Blk Pts 28 10-17 8-12 8 2 28
* 1996-97 Season Averages:
Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 39.4 .563 .500 13.0 2.8 26.1
* 1995-96 Season Averages:
Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 36.0 .573 .487 11.0 2.1 26.6
* Sunday's Salary: $130,658.53
* Season Totals $4,050,414.43
* FACTOID: The Lakers extended their NBA record winning streak to 21 with a 129-114 victory over the expansion Portland Trail Blazers in game 31 of the 1971-72 season. Talking about the pressures of the streak, Happy Hairston said: "It gets tough, because whenever a team gets within 10 points of us now, the fans go crazy."