Lakers Barely Home Free

With the surprising suddenness of, well, a tug on Superman’s cape, the shifting subplot of this Laker season has changed again.

It’s no longer Shaq vs. Kobe.

It’s now Shaq vs. Shaq.

Phil Jackson changed the rules in published comments that bounced off one of our back pages Saturday like an advertisement for free tires.


For the first time since arriving here and becoming both a model citizen and MVP, Shaquille O’Neal has been called out by his coach.

Jackson didn’t use those exact words, but it couldn’t have been any clearer had he been pounding his finger between the numbers 3 and 4.

In a story critical of his team’s intensity, Jackson cited only two players who played hard all the time. O’Neal was not one of those players.

In talking about his team’s lack of conditioning, Jackson mentioned only one player specifically. O’Neal was that player.


By Saturday night, before the Lakers’ 116-114 overtime victory over the Clippers, Jackson was still tugging.

He was told that fans might interpret his earlier comments as criticism of O’Neal.

“Yes,” Jackson said.

He was asked what he considered to be the problem.


He started with defense. He said O’Neal wasn’t getting back with the intensity he showed last year.

“Last year, we sold him on transition defense, that retreating quickly was the most important thing he could do,” Jackson said. “This year, he’s not been able to do that.”

Jackson then cited overall energy. He noted that in their recent loss to Portland, despite 22 free throws in the third quarter, O’Neal asked for a break at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

“That surprised me a little bit,” Jackson said.


Is it that O’Neal, as some observers have noted, is out of shape?

“No, his weight his not the problem,” Jackson said.

Then what is it?

“It’s a mental thing,” Jackson said.


He explained that perhaps O’Neal does not have as much energy because he is expending it on worry over not being a bigger part of the offense.

“A lot of it is frustration on the offensive end,” he said.


Shaq vs. Shaq.


In everything from autograph sessions to college graduation to an NBA championship, O’Neal has never given this town less than a championship effort.

But Jackson is right.

O’Neal is currently not in a championship mood.

He is fretting over the Lakers'--OK, Kobe Bryant’s--inconsistent ability to run the offense through him.


He is aching with an Achilles’ tendon injury that he refuses to rest.

He is stewing over his free-throw meltdown.

Considering the sensitive O’Neal straps all of this to his back, is it any wonder he has trouble getting back on defense or staying on the court?

"[Jackson] is the boss, I’ll respect whatever he says,” O’Neal said Saturday night. “I’ll take his criticism and learn from it.”


However . . .

“Am I frustrated with the offense?” he said. “Darn right I am. Sometimes I feel like a token center out there.”

And . . .

“Yeah, my Achilles’ is killing me,” he said. “But I’m not coming out. If I can jog and walk, I’m playing.”


That’s the answer. That’s what O’Neal needs to do.

He needs to just play.

He needs to forget about his possession issues with Bryant, who has lately been shooting too well and playing too hard to remain mired in this tired argument.

The kid was cited by Jackson, along with Rick Fox, as one of the two Lakers who are expending full energy every night. The kid is trying. The kid is growing.


Bryant may perhaps be the best player in the NBA so far this season. He is going to be sharing the court and the headlines with O’Neal for, if we are lucky, a long time.

O’Neal needs to realize this, shrug, and move beyond it.

He needs to be reminded, Bryant’s success doesn’t mean his failure.

Just because Bryant can bring the ooohs doesn’t mean O’Neal’s presence isn’t still required to bring the ring.


Granted, with Bryant’s further emergence, O’Neal’s offense isn’t quite as important this year. But his defense is just as important. His free throws are more important.

So the Lakers have experienced some brilliant wins with that guy in the air. They still can’t have those experiences in June without the guy in the middle.

O’Neal needs to realize this, shrug, and move beyond it.

Together, O’Neal and Bryant’s sum is far greater than their parts. In the beginning of their careers here, Bryant had no clue on this. Lately, though, he seems to understand that better than O’Neal.


Bryant can, and will, in time, only make O’Neal better.

If O’Neal plays defense the way he did last season. Fights through injuries the way he did last season. Makes the big free throws the way he did last season.

Doing those things made O’Neal an MVP. He is still the league’s most dominant player. He is still the Lakers’ most important player. Nobody is questioning that.

The last two days, Jackson has been questioning something else.


Only the entire Laker season depends on Shaquille O’Neal’s answer.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: