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Lakers Put Dallas in Its Place

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five games in five towns in eight days ended for the Lakers late Sunday afternoon, with Shaquille O’Neal’s feet in a bucket of ice water, with four victories and with a sense they were able to drive themselves when absolutely necessary, a new accessory to their fractured season.

In a place where the home team occasionally believes it is gaining on the two-time defending NBA champions, before a local owner who alternately celebrated and pouted, the Lakers were again better, by the length of O’Neal’s ferocious game, swollen toe or not.

The Lakers beat Dallas, 101-94, at American Airlines Center, where O’Neal had 31 points and 13 rebounds, Kobe Bryant had 24 points and 10 rebounds, and O’Neal told the Mavericks about it.

The Lakers have won five of six games, for a record of 33-12, four wins better than last year after 45 games. They have won 24 of 25 games against the Mavericks, who at times view themselves as title contenders, at least when their games against the Lakers have worn off. Asked what the team owned by Mark Cuban and run by Don Nelson could do to alter the series’ course, O’Neal sighed.

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“There’s nothing you can do,” he said. “It’s like a bad headache, you accept two hours of [butt]-kicking and then after it’s over, it’s over.”

It often starts the same with the Mavericks, who think they can, then don’t. Even when Nelson’s zone defense--they played it for about 30 minutes Sunday--annoys the Lakers, even when the Lakers shoot 39.8% from the field, even when the Mavericks go frightfully big on the front line, they don’t.

The Mavericks missed 24 of 28 three-point attempts, and All-Stars Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash combined to miss 22 of 33 field-goal attempts, and O’Neal made his free throws (seven of nine), a sight that sucked the air out of Cuban’s new, glitzy place. And so, they think they can, and then they score 30 points in the first quarter, and then they don’t, because something almost always seems to happen.

“Dallas is like that, Sacramento is like that, Minnesota is like that,” O’Neal said, to name a few.

“When you’re the best, everybody uses you as a measuring stick, everybody wants to be your rival. My message to everybody is just, ‘Go play.’ Don’t tell me what the ... you’re going to do in the paper. That’ll just wake me up, every time. My feet hurt, that’ll just make me take more ... drugs, until I get right and come and dominate.

“If you’re going to beat us, beat us. Play. Whoever wants to beat me, I’ll welcome the challenge. But play. Play like a man. Don’t be whining and crying and all that BS. Just play. You’re going to beat me, beat me. If you beat me, I’ll be the first to say that.”

In a gym nearly shaking with energy, the Mavericks had their last lead with 6:45 left in the second quarter. They tied, 76-76, with 9:45 to play, and maybe they thought they would, and then they didn’t. The Lakers scored the next six points--on O’Neal’s dunk over Shawn Bradley, on O’Neal’s two free throws and on Bryant’s fastbreak dunk, set up when O’Neal blocked a shot near the arc by Michael Finley, gathered the ball and fed Bryant.

And maybe that bothered the Mavericks, because late in the game Tim Hardaway shouted angry things at Bryant and Derek Fisher, and the Lakers chuckled.

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“There’s nothing worse than an old guy who’s jealous,” Bryant said. “Nothing worse.”

Fisher, who had 19 points, scored six of the Lakers’ final eight points from the free-throw line. Rick Fox scored the others, also from the line. Relegated to reserve duty just before the trip, Fisher scored at least 19 points in three of the five games, and against the Mavericks played 30 minutes to Lindsey Hunter’s 13. Hunter has a sore lower back.

Robert Horry had 11 rebounds and eight assists in 34 minutes, and Mitch Richmond had nine points and four rebounds, all in a nine-minute run in the second quarter.

“I’m not going back to the drawing board,” Nelson said. “I liked our game plan. Maybe we’re just not ready for prime time yet. Maybe we’re not ready for the Lakers. I think that time will come. I hope it will come this year.”

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Jackson was not sure it was the Lakers, as much as it was O’Neal. Nelson’s zone was supposed to stop O’Neal and force jump shots, and still O’Neal got his, and still he made his free throws.

“I think the power of Shaq is overwhelming inside,” Jackson said.

“He’s played very well against this team, because he’s used a variety of things and we’ve used a variety of things.

“He’s really started to look much better at the free-throw line and he knew today he had to really be focused, because the possibility of having to go to the free-throw line was something he faced.

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“I think he wanted to play well. I didn’t ask him how he felt. I asked him one time if he was tired, he said, ‘No, I feel good.’”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

More of the Same

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The Lakers have won 40 of their last 43 games against the Dallas Mavericks, and Sunday’s victory moved L.A. (33-12) a game ahead of Dallas (33-14) for the second-best record in the Western Conference. A look at the keys to Sunday’s Laker victory:

One-Two Punches

Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant of the Lakers got the better of Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, their Dallas counterparts. At one point in the second half, O’Neal and Bryant had made 12 of 18 field-goal attempts while the rest of the Lakers were only three of 28. Comparing the production of O’Neal and Bryant to Nash and Nowitzki:

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The Bench

Derek Fisher continued his strong play as a reserve, scoring 12 of his 19 points in the second half. Fisher is averaging 15.2 points in the last six games as a reserve. Overall, the Laker bench outscored Dallas’, 34-21.

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In Quotes

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“We belong with the best in the West. We’ve showed that already this year. We just can’t beat the Lakers. That’s all it is.”

(tabular data not included)


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