At the conclusion of a week partly spent belittling his teammates, Shaquille O’Neal’s mood grew darker still Tuesday night.
After the Golden State Warriors beat the Lakers, 106-102, O’Neal walked slowly to an idling bus, shaking his head at questions thrown to him from below. He had scored 36 points, had taken nine rebounds, and it wasn’t enough either, so apparently he’s beginning to wonder.
“Talk to the [guys] that ain’t doing nothing,” he said on his way from the Arena in Oakland, from the Lakers’ 10th road loss in 12 games. “Don’t talk to me.”
He declined to identify the neglectful teammates.
Rick Fox, perhaps, who had eight points and three rebounds in 24 minutes. Maybe Devean George, who had four points and three rebounds in 29 minutes.
Derek Fisher, who missed nine of 13 shots? Kobe Bryant, who scored 19 points, almost nine below his season’s average? The whole bench scored 10 points in 62 minutes.
Phil Jackson, possibly, who afterward said he too is waiting for more effort, but has not yet been able to pull it from his players, perhaps not yet struck by the urgency of 14 losses in 23 games.
And on they go, alternating between deeply concerned and soaking in perspective, and unable so far to back up all of the talking O’Neal did while recovering from toe surgery.
Read O’Neal’s words from a notepad, Fox grinned and said, “He can say that. He’s Shaq,” and nobody wants any more from O’Neal than that.
Late last week, after previous criticism from O’Neal -- “I just want eight guys out there with me who want to play,” he had said in Salt Lake City -- and Bryant, Laker players met to discuss the public condemnations from their superstar captains. After a pointed oration from Brian Shaw, in particular, the 13 Lakers agreed it was best not to disparage one another.
It lasted a few days, anyway, as long as it took to lose again.
They stayed on the edge, where they’ve spent a good six weeks.
They dare not go too often to their bench. They force minutes for O’Neal and Bryant. Jackson, who at times coaches as if marginally interested, spends half the game leaping from his chair bellowing for timeouts, the other half with his chin on his palm.
And with all of that, it’s getting almost no easier for the Lakers.
The other team played harder defense, the other team played better down the stretch, and the other team played as though it had more at stake. They are 9-14, and Christmas is two weeks away.
“We had two big wins against good teams, but I don’t think that was a rebirth of this team,” Fisher said. “It’s been tough on the road. We’re not playing consistent enough basketball to win on the road.”
Now, after three consecutive championships, the littlest things can be a problem.
Take Earl Boykins.
The 5-foot-5 guard drove the Warrior offense in the fourth quarter, drew a game-turning charge against Fisher with inside 11 seconds remaining, and scored the Warriors’ last two points, from the free-throw line. He had 14 points, 11 in the fourth quarter, and eight assists in 25 minutes.
After leads of 10 points in the first quarter and eight in the second, the Lakers never led in the second half. In fact, they rallied from an 11-point deficit with 6:39 remaining to push the Warriors at the end, drawing once to within a point -- 101-100 with 1:47 left -- with the ball.
Bryant, who had 14 assists but bruised his right elbow and took only four shots in the second half, missed a jumper, and the Warriors built their lead to four points.
“We did a good job of fighting toward the end,” Bryant said, “but we weren’t able to get over the hump.”
The Lakers had won two road games in six weeks, one in Los Angeles and one in Memphis.
They’d lost in Cleveland, by a lot. In Portland. In Miami. In Utah. Warm places. Cold places. Places where they played well (Washington) and not so well (Dallas).
The venue, however, was a coincidence.
The Lakers lacked an offensive identity, lacked defensive continuity. They lacked Shaq.
“I don’t know if where we played has anything to do with our start,” Fisher said. “It probably didn’t matter.
“Whether we’re at home or on the road, we’re still searching for ways to go out and impose our will on teams.”
They’re not there yet, then. They don’t yet see that November changed everything for them.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Mice That Roar
With their loss to Golden State, the Lakers’ mark against teams that currently have losing records dropped to 6-4. The results of those 10 games, with the current record of the opposing teams:
*--* Date Team Result Rec Nov. 1 Clippers W, 108-93 9-13 Nov. 5 Cleveland L, 89-70 3-19 Nov. 8 Washington L, 100-99 9-12 Nov. 15 Golden State W, 96-89 8-13 Nov. 22 Chicago W, 86-73 6-15 Nov. 24 Milwaukee W, 111-99 9-11 Nov. 26 Miami L, 97-85 5-16 Nov. 29 Memphis W, 112-106 4-18 Dec. 3 Memphis W, 101-91 4-18 Dec. 10 Golden State L, 106-102 8-13