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O’Neal Feeling the Strain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Break up the Lakers!

On second thought, don’t bother. They seem to be doing a good job of that themselves.

The team that has simultaneously endured and thrived, to where it is 10-0 despite injuries to Shaquille O’Neal, Robert Horry, Nick Van Exel, Kobe Bryant and Elden Campbell, learned Friday it would be without O’Neal for another extended stretch, this time at least 10 days because of his lingering strained abdominal muscle.

That’s a minimum of five games, though there are no plans now to put him on the injured list. The good news for the Lakers is that the stretch includes only one likely playoff club--Miami, and the Heat is still without Alonzo Mourning--along with the Clippers, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors. A sixth game would be against the Denver Nuggets.

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The really good news is they’re used to it.

“This is something we’re very accustomed to,” Coach Del Harris said. “Shaq has missed about a third of the season so far [counting exhibitions] and missed about half of last season. Our guys are ready. It’s not something we like, but it’s not something that strikes fear in our hearts.

“I don’t want to sound like we don’t need Shaq. Sure, we need Shaq. We love Shaq. But we’re not a one-man team. . . . I guess people expect me to pull out my hair and throw up my hands. But I’m not going to do that.”

He’ll start Campbell at center and hope the increased role for new backup Sean Rooks, who has played only 17 minutes the last five games, means a duplication of Rooks’ contribution the second half of last season and the opener this season.

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The one-man-team theory had been dispelled months ago, of course--the Lakers went 18-13 without O’Neal in 1996-97, the bulk coming just after the All-Star break because of his hyperextended left knee. They were first in the Western Conference when he went out that time and finished fourth, but it was barely more than a stumble, still only one game out of first in the Pacific Division.

This season, it has been the strained abdominal muscle from the start. When it developed the opening night of training camp, it cost him two days. When it was aggravated Oct. 21, early in the exhibition game at Denver, he sat out the rest of that night, the final three preseason contests and the regular-season opener. The Lakers won that game, just as they did the second as O’Neal served a suspension.

Upon finally returning, he went on an immediate tear, shooting 60% while averaging 24.5 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, even though the first two games came with time restrictions in an attempt to ease him back.

But the area just above the groin remained a problem, especially in the last four games, since Nov. 14 at Houston. It appeared to be the normal tenderness he would have to play through, but the problem flared again Wednesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Lakers decided to pull their superstar center from the lineup for additional treatment and rehabilitation, including a visit to an abdominal specialist.

“I feel like punching somebody,” O’Neal said after the latest news, describing his frustration. “Any volunteers?”

Probably not. There already has been enough physical pain around the Lakers.


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