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Jackson Sure of a Glaring Problem

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Times Staff Writer

Even with Shaquille O’Neal going horizontal at the rim at the end of a fastbreak, Samaki Walker having taken nine rebounds in 18 minutes against the Phoenix Suns and all of them having won three of four basketball games, Coach Phil Jackson said Monday the Lakers need to become more athletic.

The trading deadline is Feb. 20. By all indications except his own, General Manager Mitch Kupchak has been trolling for a player who would fit the profile described by Jackson and yet not destroy the franchise’s payroll for years to come. It is a highly difficult task that might end simply by signing Horace Grant, though that rumor has been quiet recently too, or no one at all.

Jackson and Kupchak had said they would mull their roster and potential changes to it through the holidays, and today they are 14-20 and playing only slightly better, because O’Neal is.

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It seemed to bother Jackson that O’Neal could be as dominant as he was Sunday night against the Phoenix Suns -- 36 points and 16 rebounds -- and still the Lakers had to play nearly through the end of the fourth quarter, the Suns unwilling to be put away.

“I’ve been saying this for as long as I’ve been a coach,” Jackson said. “At this time of year, you have to be ready to help our ballclub. If we can help ourselves, we’ll help ourselves. We feel like we need to be more athletic.”

If it is going to come from their current 13 players, Jackson said, it will come from Walker, whose various injuries and illnesses have kept him from being the player he was in the first half of last season, and rookie Kareem Rush. Otherwise, the loose balls will continue to go unclaimed, the defense will continue to be slow, and O’Neal and Kobe Bryant will continue to carry too heavy a load.

“We will not be deterred,” Jackson said, “because we won a couple of games.”

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On the other hand, O’Neal was almost himself Sunday night, partly as a result of a new practice routine designed to get his game quick and above the rim again.

O’Neal wasn’t around to discuss it, but apparently he has been concentrating on explosion techniques, now that he has taken some weight off.

He blocked four shots Sunday night, most after coming from the weak side to help on the likes of Stephon Marbury.

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“The best way to gauge it is his defensive activity,” Rick Fox said of O’Neal’s progress. “That usually tells the tale of how well he’s moving and how good he’s feeling.

“We’re not hearing him say to us, ‘It’s hurting tonight’ or, ‘[I] don’t have it tonight,’ ” Fox said. “That’s a good sign.”

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TONIGHT

vs. Seattle SuperSonics,

7:30, Fox Sports Net

Site -- Staples Center.

Radio -- KLAC-AM (570), KWKW-AM (1330).

Records -- Lakers 14-20, SuperSonics 16-16.

Record vs. SuperSonics -- (2001-02) 3-1.

Update -- The SuperSonics were 8-2 after three weeks and still holding on at 14-11 after seven weeks, but the bottom has dropped out. They’ve lost five of seven games. They rank in the bottom third of the league in scoring and defensive rebounding, and lack an inside presence. Center Jerome James is expected to be activated from the injured list in time for tonight’s game, however, after sitting out 27 games because of injuries.

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