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Concern May Take a Toehold

It’s too early to worry.

Say it as slowly as they help on defense.

Say it as clearly as they are confused on offense.

Say it even while the doubts are flying past you like Jerry Stackhouse in the final three seconds last week with the Lakers staring at him as if he were a danged painting!

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Say it even as they were being dominated Tuesday by an Atlanta Hawk team that committed 16 danged turnovers!

It’s too early to worry.

Even though everything tells you that it’s not.

Kobe Bryant isn’t talking to the team.

Devean George isn’t talking to the media.

Phil Jackson is talking horror movies.

“We don’t expect our players to come out of their skin,” he said of his suddenly, stunningly outmanned group.

Derek Fisher looks slow.

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Robert Horry looks ancient.

A player with the approximate body weight of popcorn just got nailed for steroids.

Soumaila Samake?

Steroids?

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What’s next, the Pillsbury Doughboy busted for diet pills?

“Guy was just trying to get stronger because he knew I was going to bust his butt every day in practice,” said Shaquille O’Neal with a shrug.

Say it again.

Enunciate it longer than one of Bryant’s disapproving glares.

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It’s ... too ... early ... to ... worry.

We think.

“This is only a terrible, bad dream,” O’Neal reassured Tuesday before the Lakers’ 95-83 loss. “Real life will be back soon.”

Indeed, nothing about the Lakers’ 2-6 start will mean anything once he returns.

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Bryant can stop shooting. Tracy Murray can start shooting.

George can chill, Horry can rest, Fisher can deal, and Jerry Stackhouse tries that again, he’s getting knocked into the Potomac.

Even when O’Neal plays, a Laker autumn means little to a team that lives for spring.

Without O’Neal, it means even less.

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Judging from the bored looks Tuesday from fans too numb to even boo, it means nothing.

If we have learned nothing else in three seasons, we have learned this.

“The day is not over,” O’Neal said. “I will close the deal.”

We don’t doubt him.

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It’s his toe we don’t trust.

He postponed his first anticipated return date from toe surgery Tuesday, and the disappointment felt by his teammates was palpable.

When he does finally return -- what, in 10 days, two weeks, a month? -- how long will it take for him to work into playing shape?

What is he going to do with the added weight?

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Are we looking at March before he can truly march again?

That’s OK. Keep reminding yourself.

It’s too early to worry.

Um, er, right?

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“I don’t think this has been wearing us down,” said Samaki Walker of the Lakers’ dreadful start. “I think it’s only making us tougher.”

The overtime loss in Boston and 17-point comeback in Washington -- all without O’Neal -- can somehow be spun positively.

That their four-game series against the Sacramento Kings doesn’t begin until Christmas is a lucky break.

And everyone remembers that the Lakers won their last two championships without home-court advantage, so does it really matter where they finish?

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“Better this happen early in the day than late in the day,” O’Neal said.

But even this early, there are troubling things, blaring like an annoying alarm clock.

Bryant’s mental state is one of them.

Placed in the awkward position of leading an offense based around a player who is not there, he has been criticized for shooting too much, ripped for not being involved enough, caught in a spot where he cannot win.

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After proving his unselfishness for the last three springs, he should have earned everyone’s trust by now. But apparently, he has not. And understandably, it bothers him.

So angered by recent events, he said little to his teammates for three days before Tuesday’s game.

“I want them to feel the responsibility to put the ball in the hole,” Bryant said. “Their roles have changed now.”

Then there is George who, after being properly criticized by Bryant for failing to guard Stackhouse on Friday, has decided it’s no fun being accountable.

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So, unlike his higher-profile teammates who have mostly faced the music during the last three years, George has decided to no longer speak to the media.

Guess $18.45 million doesn’t buy what it used to.

Jackson joked Tuesday that George’s ankle injuries were aggravated by newspaper stories.

It’s no joke that the various other missteps suffered by this team’s important role players make one wonder whether they are tired, or aging, or finally bending under the weight of three years of pressure.

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Of course, when O’Neal comes back, everything changes, and the Lakers become the Lakers again.

It’s definitely, without a doubt, much too early to worry.

Or is it?

*

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.


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