A Bad Patch May Be Over
The year ended about the time the first gray stubble appeared below Phil Jackson’s lower lip, a two-game winning streak sprouting in step with what looks to be a brand new soul patch, and the Laker camp is officially accepting all marriages of hoops and karma as it heaves and strains for a fourth consecutive title.
Amid reports that Jackson isn’t as easy to live with as he once was, and with a fresh certainty in their demeanor, the Lakers swept their weekend games against two of the NBA impoverished. They beat the Toronto Raptors, 104-88, Sunday night at Staples Center, 24 hours after a 19-point victory in Denver, and so have won two in a row for the first time in three weeks and the fourth time all season.
Having hedged his bets by adding a fourth ring earlier in the week, newlywed Shaquille O’Neal scored 35 points, most within a few feet of the rim. He made 14 of 18 shots and took 10 rebounds, then left without a word, his recent habit.
Kobe Bryant had 13 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, that rebound short of his season’s fifth triple-double, and Rick Fox scored 15 points in 22 minutes.
The Lakers have won three times in seven games, twice against the eight-win Raptors and once against the six-win Nuggets. They played for the seventh time this season on back-to-back nights, and for the first time won the second of those, and that, Jackson said, “We feel like we can build on.”
After what they’ve been through -- and it will be weeks before they can be sure it’s truly behind them -- the Lakers cling to familiarity, the sight of O’Neal thrashing to the basket, the vision of Bryant on the wing setting up his fadeaway, and of -- get this -- the triangle offense. Even while O’Neal was having one of those I’ll-get-50-if-I-want-'em games, there appeared to be a purpose to the games of those around him, more than stuffing the ball into O’Neal’s hands and standing away from the violence.
Though their turnovers remained high (17), so too were their assists (28, on 43 field goals) and, occasionally, their regard for finding the open shot.
“I think it started [Saturday] night a little bit,” Fox said on his way out. “The whip has been cracked. We asked for it and Phil has started to demand it. It’s been a nice three-year run. It would be rather disappointing to end it because we weren’t disciplined enough. It’s tough not to be able to have fun and joke with our coach, but we’re not a team that responds to that. It’s tough on him, too, I’m sure, because he wants to enjoy it, too.”
They’ve asked for it, of course. The Lakers rolled to the end of their calendar year and into their longest break of the season -- they won’t play again until Saturday in Phoenix -- with a record of 13-19. Their end-to-end victory against the Raptors pulled them out of their virtual tie with Golden State for last place in the Pacific Division, and their rigorous early-season schedule turns airy for the better part of two months.
Jackson, among others, has targeted the coming weeks as their time to heal and then answer their horrendous start. It’ll start with O’Neal. He has made 24 of 33 field-goal attempts since his wedding day, and again is the league’s most accurate shooter, Sunday climbing to 57.2%. He has led the league five consecutive seasons.
Against the likes of Jelani McCoy, Greg Foster and Nate Huffman, and with the Laker offense looking something approaching crisp, O’Neal made 10 of 13 field-goal attempts and had 24 points in the first half. He also had seven rebounds, three of them on the offensive side.
At halftime, his young sons, sitting across from the Laker bench, pulled new white No. 34 jerseys over their heads and shouted for him, “Dad! Dad!” so he could see, too.
“He was pretty good,” Raptor Coach Lenny Wilkens said. “That’s the quickest I’ve seen him. We had no answer for him. There were a couple times we couldn’t even get there with the double-team, he was so quick.”
It was that, for sure, but the offense was quicker to O’Neal, as well, also at Jackson’s insistence.
“He’s gotten a little less tolerant,” Fox said. “The rope has shortened. If you’re not going to police yourself, then you’re going to get policed. We’re proving we can still be coached. Once again, Phil is showing he has something to do with this success.”