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Lakers Avert Core Meltdown

Times Staff Writer

The Lakers arrived in the fourth quarter and then overtime Friday night, in their third town in four nights, the weight of their recent failures gathering in expressions of weariness on their familiar faces.

Behind by a point, their bench having given them almost nothing in the way of offense, Robert Horry having sat on the bench after the national anthem and never having budged, the Lakers again had no choice but the predictable.

They cleared out for Kobe Bryant. They threw entry passes to Shaquille O’Neal. They defended the Memphis Grizzlies, energized by their proximity to -- and the vulnerability of -- the Lakers, sometimes rigorously, sometimes not.

The Lakers won, 112-106, in overtime at the Pyramid, with Jerry West amid the sellout crowd, at the end of another difficult day spent searching for their usual game.

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Bryant scored 45 points in 48 minutes, two nights after scoring 38 points in his Orlando shootout with Tracy McGrady, the last two Friday on a flying, 360-degree dunk in front of Jason Williams. Then he winked at a little girl wearing a Grizzly jersey in the front row, and she smiled back in spite of herself. O’Neal had 33 points and 13 rebounds in 43 minutes, all highs since returning five games ago after foot surgery.

“Not yet,” O’Neal said about the gradual return to something familiar. “Almost. A couple games, a couple weeks. I’ll be back.”

They won once in three games on the trip and are 6-11 overall, 3-2 with O’Neal. At this time last year, seemingly a different team ago and on the way to 58 wins, they were 16-1.

They won finally in three games when Rick Fox made two jumpers early in overtime, and Bryant scored six of their final 10 points, and the Grizzlies missed five of seven shots.

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“The core of this team, I wouldn’t say we’re weary exactly, but we’re being tested in areas of health and fatigue,” Fox said. “We’ve got to get stronger physically and push through it.”

It was another of those road affairs for the Lakers, who won for the first time in eight games on the road, and for the first time away from Staples Center.

The people screamed “Beat L.A.” and Hubie Brown turned all shades of red on the Memphis sideline, and then they all screamed “Dee-fense” and watched the Grizzlies score six consecutive points to go from 97-92 down to 98-97 up as the seconds streamed away.

Williams, the Grizzly point guard, made two three-pointers in the final minute of regulation, the second with 14 seconds left. O’Neal was fouled with 11.3 seconds remaining and after he swished the first free-throw attempt, he sent the second long, leaving the score tied, 98-98.

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The Grizzlies had a chance to go ahead, but Drew Gooden, their rookie, was two feet long on a 20-footer from the left corner. Bryant missed a long shot at the buzzer, sending the Laker road trip into one more period.

“It didn’t seem like anything went right for us down the stretch,” Coach Phil Jackson said. "[But] we’re happy to get a win. It didn’t matter to us.”

Horry, who after Wednesday’s loss in Orlando said his feet felt “terrible,” did not play. Asked if he would play Sunday against Minnesota, Horry said, “I don’t know.”

Slava Medvedenko started and had a difficult time defending Gooden, but these are not times for the Lakers to be choosy. Medvedenko played 29 minutes. Mark Madsen played 32. And the Lakers leaned hard on Bryant, who took 35 shots and made 18. In the fourth quarter, when the Lakers came from three points down against a team that only two weeks ago had lost 13 consecutive games, Bryant scored 12 points and O’Neal scored seven.

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And, while Jackson sat Bryant in the fourth quarter after he believed Bryant had forced a shot or two, it was barely two minutes before he waved him back in.

“We’re in the process of getting better as a ballclub,” Bryant said afterward.

It is a process, for sure. They could get forward Devean George back Sunday, but might lose Horry for a couple of games. The injured and mending are scattered like wadded tape in the locker room, and they can’t get a cheap, easy win anywhere.

So, they took the win and tried not to mull the alternative.

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“Oh and three?” Bryant said on his way out. “Naw. That’s not the look, man.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A Jazz Standard

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Utah finished last season as the No. 8-seeded team in the NBA’s Western Conference. The Jazz -- and the Lakers this season -- after 17 games:

2001-02 JAZZ

Record: 6-11

Points per game: 96.2

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Points against per game: 99.9

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2002-03 LAKERS

Record: 6-11

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Points per game: 91.2

Points against per game: 95.7

Note: Lakers through 17 games during the last three seasons: 2001-2002: 16-1; 2000-2001: 12-5; 1999-2000: 13-4


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