O’Neal Might Not Be Ready by Tuesday
By the end of three road games in four nights, Shaquille O’Neal was expressing doubt about playing Tuesday night against the Atlanta Hawks, so a 2-5 record might not be the worst of it yet for the Lakers.
The plan is to have O’Neal practice today and Monday, attend a shoot-around Tuesday, and then he will tell everyone about the toe that so delays the defense of the Lakers’ three consecutive NBA titles.
In the meantime, he is alternately optimistic and pessimistic, depending on the fit of his shoe and the feel beneath his toe, which has been the most recent issue. O’Neal’s recoveries tend to follow circuitous paths, and there’s still the matter of getting the orthotic devices exactly right, though a week ago he said they were perfect.
While the Lakers understand they aren’t the Lakers without O’Neal, they’re noting the names and addresses of their detractors, whom they view as a bit too eager to find fault with a team that any day now will be playing for its fourth consecutive championship. Opponents, they feel, celebrate too hard. Television analysts, the ones they watched in five-star hotel rooms for going on a week, were too quick to bury them.
“Everybody’s talking trash now,” Tracy Murray said. “When we get our team back intact, they won’t be talking then.”
Ten days ago, O’Neal scolded Hall of Famer Bill Walton for something Walton had said on television, and in Washington on Friday, O’Neal took Sean Elliott to task for what was apparently the same transgression. According to friends of Elliott’s at ESPN, O’Neal first left Elliott a warning note at the hotel the team shared with some from the cable network, then pulled him aside before the game at MCI Center and wagged a finger in his face.
The next several days will be critical for O’Neal, along with a few others who could use the practice time (Rick Fox) or the recovery time (Robert Horry, Devean George).
The Lakers did not practice Saturday after their overnight, cross-country trip. The flight might have been particularly arduous given the events of Friday night, their journey from 17 points back to one up on the Washington Wizards, their defeat on a blown defensive assignment.
They return to the court today in El Segundo, and practice again Monday. If O’Neal is unable to play Tuesday night, the Lakers can test his toe again on practice days Wednesday and Thursday before Friday night’s game against Golden State. After seven games in 11 days to start the season, they play only three times in the next 10 days.
The best news for the Lakers is that the Sacramento Kings haven’t started particularly well, either, and they don’t play the Kings until Christmas. By then, everyone should be sound.
Still, they are 2-5. Last year, the Lakers lost their fifth game on Dec. 26, in their 25th game.
“It is strange,” Kobe Bryant said. “But it’s real early in the season. We played pretty well. We fought hard [Thursday] night to come back. We played pretty well [Friday night] to come back and have a chance to win the game. We’ll be OK. We’ll actually be a better team because of it.”
Ever the forgotten man, Brian Shaw averaged 12 points on the three-game trip.
Phil Jackson turned to Shaw after the Lakers scored an L.A. franchise-low 70 points Tuesday in Cleveland. Shaw scored 10 points Thursday against Boston and 20 points Friday against the Wizards, 16 in a 39-point Laker fourth quarter. In the final two games of the trip, Shaw was 13 for 20 from the floor.
Jackson often speaks of winning quarters rather than winning games, thus allowing his players a narrower perspective on a large task. The Lakers played 13 periods (including a five-minute overtime) in their three-game losing streak and lost 11 of them.