The handwriting wasn't exactly on the wall Sunday night for the Vancouver Grizzlies, who were in enough trouble already considering their last-place record and the arrival of the Lakers.
But this wasn't far off.
The story was on the wall.
An article in the Vancouver Province in which George Lynch ripped the Lakers, his team for three seasons before a trade sent him north, had been posted in the visitors' locker room at GM Place, in case anyone there didn't see the 20 or so copies that had been passed around. They came, they read, they conquered, using the comments as motivation for what became a 95-82 victory over the Grizzlies before 19,193 that included a personal-best 23 assists for Nick Van Exel.
"We took it and saw what he said," Eddie Jones said after scoring 21 points to help the Lakers win their sixth game in a row, their best run of the season. "That's something that really pushed us. It made us really aggressive."
Said Van Exel: "Everybody read it. We just wanted to come out and play hard. It's not like they're Houston or anything."
Lynch apparently doesn't think much of the Lakers, either. His former team knew that from the headline:
LAKERS WILL COLLAPSE, SAYS LYNCH
Lynch had gone from 50.8% shooting as a rookie to 46.8% to 43% last season before being traded, along with Anthony Peeler, to clear salary-cap room for Shaquille O'Neal, so maybe Laker players figured it was about time he made some shots. But what a time to do it, when it would become prime bulletin-board material.
"I don't think they're a better team than we [the Lakers] were last year," Lynch told the Province. "I guarantee you after the all-star break they'll fall apart. They've got some good players, like Eddie, Shaq and Nick, but they don't have a guy to do the little things well. A team like Chicago has a [Dennis] Rodman or a [Randy] Brown. The Lakers don't have a guy who does the the things that don't get you noticed but help you win ballgames."
"They've got problems there, too, with Nick and Del [Harris, the coach]. These two guys don't get along, and I have to say, I don't blame Nick. He's a free-and-open type of guy, and he needs space to be his best and maybe they've had problems with too much control. But when you get in a tough game down the stretch, you've got to have your coach and your point guard get along. If they don't, it's not going to work."
Harris wasn't very bothered by the comments, aware that he and Van Exel are hardly the best of friends but are comfortable in the middle ground they have found in which the Lakers can succeed. There will still be bad days, but these are the good days, when the point guard is happy and the team has won 12 of 15 and 16 of the last 20.
"We try to treat all the guys the best we know how," Harris said of Lynch. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
Added Van Exel: "He has his opinions. You can't knock him for it. The only thing you can do is try to prove him wrong."
Like Van Exel on Sunday.
The 23 assists, six better than his previous high, tied for second-most in team history, only one behind the number Magic Johnson hit twice. It was also the first time a Laker had surpassed 20 since Johnson on Nov. 6, 1990.
As if that's not impressive enough, consider that it came on a night when the Lakers often struggled with their shooting, finishing at 46.3% after a 30% showing in the first quarter.
"It just shows how he had a hand in almost everything going on," Byron Scott said.
Never more than in the fourth quarter, when the Lakers saw a nine-point lead turn into a 75-75 tie with 7:19 remaining, and then pulled away again without falling behind. Van Exel may have had 10 of his assists in the second quarter, but the seven in the final period were far more meaningful because of the circumstances.
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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 34 OF 82
* Record 25-9
* Standing 1st place
1996-97 LAKERS VS. THE BEST LAKER TEAMS
Year Gm. 34 Overall 1987-88 27-7 62-20 1986-87 26-8 65-17 1984-85 24-10 62-20 1979-80 23-11 60-22 1971-72 31-3 69-13
Note: The five teams above all won NBA championships
THE SHAQ SCOREBOARD
* Sunday's Game:
Min FG FT Reb Blk Pts 40 13-21 5-9 12 4 31
* 1996-97 Season Averages:
Min FG% FT% Reb Blk Pts 39.5 .560 .498 13.0 2.9 26.2
* 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 $4,442,390.02
* FACTOID: The Lakers outscored the 76ers, 18-1, in the final three minutes of game 34 of the 1971-72 season, and tied their all-time single-game scoring record with a 154-132 victory. Wilt Chamberlain scored 32 points, grabbed 34 rebounds and blocked 12 shots as the Lakers extended their winning streak to 25.