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Strain Derails Shaq’s Return

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Another day, another knee.

Shaquille O’Neal, claiming the right leg was at 100%, returned Wednesday night in cold Minnesota, then returned to the state of uncertainty, this time after tweaking his left knee. He walked to the locker room near the end of the first quarter, the Lakers ran to a 100-84 victory over the Timberwolves before 18,243 at Target Center, and together they were left to wonder.

About tonight, at Denver?

About Sunday, against Seattle?

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After the Lakers’ first game in six days, the injury that occurred when O’Neal landed awkwardly on the left leg with 8:26 remaining in the first quarter after trying to control Nick Van Exel’s lob pass was being called a strained knee. But that could be a preliminary prognosis.

The Dec. 2 knee injury--caused when he planted in the lane, began to twist for a shot and banged legs with Gheorghe Muresan--was originally called a strain too. The next day, when the pain had increased and shifted some overnight, it was determined to be a sprained ligament and ended up costing him two games and an appearance at All-Star weekend. The same thing could happen again, so Wednesday night was no time to make definitive statements.

O’Neal, headphones and sunglasses on, ignored questions as he walked past reporters in the locker room, without much of a limp, and went to the bus. And he accompanied the Lakers on their late-night charter flight to Denver. Beyond that, though, his schedule was what you could call open-ended.

He could wake today after a healing sleep, ready for the Nuggets. But that’s not likely.

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“I would say his chances of playing [tonight] in Denver are really slim,” Coach Del Harris said.

Therefore, so are his chances of staying in Denver. If trainer Gary Vitti decides this morning O’Neal probably wouldn’t be able to play in the finale of the two-game trip, the all-star center will probably instead be sent ahead to Los Angeles this morning for an examination by Laker physician Steve Lombardo, their third meeting in four days.

What Lombardo finds will determine how long O’Neal will be out, if at all. At least no one said this time that Tylenol will be the cure.

Much like the last time, an injury that kept him away from running for seven days and basketball activity for eight, he at least picked a convenient time to send an entire organization to Lombardo’s waiting room with chest pains. The lengthy All-Star break saved him from skipping more than the two games, and now the Lakers play only twice in the next six days. OK, so one of them is a nationally televised Pacific Division showdown with Seattle at the Forum.

Unofficially, of course, O’Neal has already sat out one contest because of the new problem: Tuesday’s.

He played only eight minutes, long enough to make six of seven shots--some after running the court for transition baskets, proving the soundness of the right knee--and get 12 points and four rebounds, but not long enough for the Lakers. They saw the knee clearly buckle under the weight of the 320-pound frame taking the impact after coming down a few feet from the basket, then O’Neal wince in obvious pain.

He stayed on the ground for about a minute while teammates circled the fallen body in concern. He was helped up, then walked to the huddle on his own for a timeout that had been called on his behalf. But he did not leave the game, instead banking in a straightaway hook from the lane 67 seconds later, followed soon after by scores on three consecutive possessions. On one, a little more than three minutes after going down, O’Neal showed strength in the legs with a put-back dunk of a Van Exel miss.

O’Neal came out with 3:37 left in the first quarter, never to return. He and Vitti soon walked to the locker room.

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It was left to Elden Campbell to step in for O’Neal, again. And Campbell responded, again, following up the 34 points and 14 rebounds against the Chicago Bulls and the 20 points and three rebounds versus the Clippers the night before with 21 points and four blocks against the Timberwolves.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Season of Expectations

The Lakers acquired nine new players before the 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 49 OF 82

* Record: 36-13

* Standing: 1st place

Pacific Division

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1996-97 LAKERS VS. THE BEST LAKER TEAMS

*--*

Year Gm. 49 Overall 1987-88 40-9 62-20 1986-87 37-12 65-17 1984-85 33-16 62-20 1979-80 34-15 60-22 1971-72 42-7 69-13

*--*

Note: The five teams above all won NBA championships

THE SHAQ SCOREBOARD

Basketball Numbers

* Wednesday’s Game:

*--*

Min FG FT Reb Ast Blk Pts 8 6-7 0-2 4 0 0 12

*--*

* 1996-97 Season Averages:

*--*

Min FG% FT% Reb Ast Blk Pts 38.6 .563 .466 12.8 3.1 3.0 25.8

*--*

* 1995-96 Season Averages:

*--*

Min FG% FT% Reb Ast Blk Pts 36.0 .573 .487 11.0 2.9 2.1 26.6

*--*

Money Numbers

* Wednesday’s Salary: $130,658.53

* Season Totals: $6,402,267.97

* FACTOID: In Game 49 of the 1986-87 season, the Lakers, energized by the acquisition of Mychal Thompson earlier in the day, defeated Indiana, 113-108. The Lakers sent Frank Brickowski, Petur Gudmundsson and two draft picks to San Antonio for Thompson.


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