Laker Excuses Running Thin

Get the idea this isn't happening?

At the Lakers' (former) level, nothing was ever decided before April. Of course, at their current pace, the only thing left to be decided by then will be where they want to go for the rest of April, when the real teams start the playoffs.

We're not talking about their pace the first three weeks (3-9) when Shaquille O'Neal was out and Kobe Bryant was ripping his teammates ... or the next month (8-10) while Shaq was getting into shape ... and, of course, ripping his teammates.

We're talking about what came next, after their Christmas loss to the Sacramento Kings, amid their new-found sense of urgency (?), as the schedule delivered up a five-day vacation, a leisurely 12 games in four weeks and an 8-4 home-road split.

They went 6-2 at home and 2-2 on the road. At that pace, they'll finish 44-38 and their three-year dynasty will probably end right there, saving them the aggravation and humiliation of being toppled in the playoffs.

The real-life experience is worse than the numbers, with their fans booing while they're being ambushed by the once-lowly Golden State Warriors ... a two-hour meeting on the off-day ... Phil Jackson, the former What, Me Worry? Kid, wondering aloud if he can still reach his players ... then watching his slugs get outhustled yet again in the cathedral-like silence of Staples Center, falling to the scrappy New Jersey Nets, who are playing their fourth game in five nights.

This is what the Lakers are now, and all they are now. All their old excuses are over. O'Neal is still missing his old explosiveness, but he's in as good condition as he ever gets in these days.

The supporting cast is out of its coma and offering as much support as it can. Derek Fisher is averaging 13 points this month and shooting 51%. Rick Fox has knocked down 43% of his threes.

It's not enough, but the cavalry won't ride over the hill soon. The only way to make a major deal is to throw in Robert Horry's $5.6-million contract but, as flat a line as he embodies now, everyone knows what a blessing he is in crunch time.

Said a West team official of an Horry-for-Brian Grant scenario: "Speaking for us, I would love to see the Lakers do that."

The Lakers' problem, and their only possible solution, is spiritual, a problem for a team that looks as if it has lost its hunger and its joy in playing the game.

"That's a big part of it ... emotionally and spiritually, the energy that it takes to do what we're doing," said Fisher after Friday night's loss. "We're still the same players physically. We're still able to score points. Guys are hitting shots. We're doing good things. It's not that we're playing so terrible that we can't win. But definitely, the energy that it takes to win over 82 games and go deep into the playoffs....

"I mean, most of this team, we've been to the playoffs every year and each game is like a playoff when we're playing against other teams and it takes a lot of energy to continue to bring that off, night in and night out. And there are times we haven't had it. It's been very obvious."

So is the realization, now echoing throughout the organization, that only O'Neal can lead them out of this.

As is always the case with the supreme leader, his thoughts, actions and moods set the tone. This is another problem, since he paces himself in games ... and seasons ... and on defense ... and seems to enjoy their title runs less with each title they win.

An awakened, chastened Shaq is still a fearsome prospect, as he showed against Yao Ming, when he got his first four shots returned, postage due. O'Neal dialed it up from that point and wore Yao down like the great big rookie he was.

After that, however, O'Neal went back to his usual level, with teammates covering for him on defense, rather than the other way around. In Friday's fourth quarter, while he lurked in the lane, as usual, Brian Shaw came over to help check his man, Aaron Williams. Williams passed back to the man Shaw had left, Brian Scalabrine, who dropped a three-point basket.

That stuff might have been OK in January, 2001 and 2002, but it won't cut it this time.

Of course, I'm the one who told you Alvin Gentry was gone a couple of weeks ago and he's hanging in there, booting the Clippers to the occasional big win.

The problem for both local teams is the West is even tougher (except for them), offering few sure victories as such old pigeons as the Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies, who won in San Antonio while Golden State was winning here, develop teeth.

The sad truth is, Gentry is almost certainly gone. The only question is when, which is how the Lakers look today, too.

Faces and Figures

Just when you think you've seen it all: After the Cavaliers fired Coach John Lucas, an unnamed friend of LeBron James told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "I tell you what, LeBron will never play for the Cavs after this. LeBron really likes Coach Lucas. He was mad when he heard about it." Maybe one of the 1,000 friends circling LeBron will tell him he has three choices: 1) Drive his Hummer to some campus and play for nothing; 2) play in Europe for peanuts; 3) go to the NBA and play where they tell you for five seasons.... In Chicago, the chaos just keeps echoing: Jay Williams, considered a can't-miss prospect as a No. 2 pick last spring, averaged 3.0 points and shot 19% in January before going on the injured list, apparently to rest his battered psyche. Mewed Williams: "I can't seem to get going, get clicking. I end up messing up or I'm too hesitant. I'm not playing like myself. The ankle hurts. I always feel like I'm beat up. It's hard for me. I'm trying, but I feel average. I don't feel like I'm explosive, that I have average speed. It's hard for me to play that way. Jamal [Crawford] is playing well. Do whatever is best for the team. If he's playing for me, so be it." Sneered teammate Jalen Rose: "This is a man's league. What does taking five games off do?" Meanwhile, Crawford, who has been campaigning loudly for Williams' job, took over the next night in Orlando and was so bad Coach Bill Cartwright ripped him to reporters. "I was hopeful Jamal would step up," said Cartwright. "He couldn't throw it in the ocean. We had other guys who couldn't throw it in the ocean either. But even if you're not going offensively, you can contribute at the other end. That didn't happen." For his part, Cartwright bristled at questions about playing Williams and Crawford together. "We're not going to put Jamal at two [shooting guard]," Cartwright said. "Get over it. Let it go. He's not going to two. All right? He's a point guard. That's what he is." ... When Tyson Chandler was chosen to the second-year team that plays the rookies during All-Star weekend, Washington's Brendan Haywood said: "They just pick people at random, huh?" Aside from that, the rebuilding project continues, right on schedule.

So much for the honeymoon (cont.): The Hornets are announcing an average attendance of 15,429 in New Orleans, No. 20 in the league. Commissioner David Stern, on speculation they might just be passing through: "My direct answer is that anything can happen anyplace. But there are a variety of circumstances dealing in Charlotte where there were mistakes by the ownership, the league, the government and the business community that combined to have a situation where the team moved.... I think Charlotte is a case study in a lot of things going wrong that we will not see again in our lifetime." This is commish-speak for, "Boy, did we blow that one, big time." There's speculation that Coach Paul Silas is under the gun. For his part, Silas laments the decision to let Baron Davis play for the U.S. team last summer. "The World Games was not a good thing because of his back," Silas said. "No one knew he was feeling that poorly. I told him, 'You're doing nothing, you're just standing around out there.' And he told me his back was killing him. I said I wish I had known because then we would not have let him go." Then there's center Elden Campbell, trying to catch up after being hurt early. "Once he gets his game back I can see us making a run at anything," Silas said. "I asked him, 'When do you think you can start again?' He said, 'Maybe in a week or so.' That's Elden." ... Must be an Eastern thing: New England native Marcus Camby, who's campaigning to get out of Denver, on the Nuggets' trip East: "I miss the smell. When we landed in Jersey, I could smell the swamp over there. Felt like old times, felt pretty good. But I'm adjusting."

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