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Dropping Into Their Lapse

Times Staff Writer

The Lakers who gathered in a gym in a downtown hotel here could only surmise it was less an organizational flaw than a momentary loss of concentration, these two games they lost in Chicago and Detroit, killing the momentum of two months.

What they know is that Shaquille O’Neal was outplayed by 20-year-old center Eddy Curry on one night and Kobe Bryant was undone by journeyman guard Chauncey Billups the next.

They say they are healthy, Bryant despite rolling to the floor gripping his right knee with both hands in the first quarter against Detroit, O’Neal again answering such inquiries with his familiar, “You care?”

What they know is they asked for an ounce of defense Tuesday, and got exactly that on Wednesday, having allowed 116 points against the Bulls and improving to 111 against the Pistons. At that rate, they’ll be a good defensive team again in a couple of weeks, in time to try it out against the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

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Phil Jackson so far has refused to be drawn into big-picture discussions of wandering passions on a basketball team that recently won 16 of 19 games. He is still not well, not yet free from the kidney stone that has departed grain by agonizing grain, a process perhaps not completely unlike drawing a fourth championship from these Lakers.

Instead, Jackson has spoken of the missed assignment here, the Dick Bavetta call there, O’Neal’s lethargy and Bryant’s careening game, then of drawing more from Mark Madsen and Kareem Rush.

“We’re not concerned about the desire or energy or conditioning,” he said, “as much as we are the [execution].”

It is possible, and Jackson most certainly is hoping, that these are the ebbs and flows of the game, of the season. Only two years ago the Lakers appeared unprepared headed for the playoffs, then won their final eight regular-season games and 15 of 16 postseason games. Last year, O’Neal limped into the playoffs and carried the NBA Finals MVP trophy out of them, so honored for the third consecutive year.

After a late get-away the night before and an early arrival in snow-swept Minnesota, Jackson appeared stiff and tired Thursday afternoon as practice wound down in the basement, and as hotel staff members hurriedly erected volleyball nets for the businessmen’s lunchtime game. He stuck to his basic belief that this is a championship team that for two days did not perform well, rather than an aging, distracted team watching its championship run end.

Still, there’s this matter of 19 games remaining and them sitting in seventh place in the conference, unable to improve on that without another run of wins. The schedule remains grim through mid-April, both in terms of venues and of opponent quality.

“I’m really not as concerned with that as much as I am playing with some kind of momentum,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of success out there for us. We’re not a good team on back-to-back situations this year.... What matters is momentum and getting everybody playing well and healthy for the final run.”

If the Lakers were to lose the last two games on a Midwest trip that concludes Saturday night in Milwaukee, Jackson said, “Then we have to look over our shoulders.”

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The Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets each were two games back, 33-30 going into Thursday’s games. The Lakers, in their worst scenario, would have to finish ahead of one of them. They play at Houston on March 26 and are home against the Suns on April 6.

“It’s always a consideration,” forward Samaki Walker said of the sudden peril from behind. “There’s always that threat. But, at the same time, we feel we can put a string of wins together.”

Even in the throes of their worst basketball, the Lakers have convinced no opposing coach of their vulnerability. Basketball men talk of the Lakers and O’Neal come April, of what spring does to a team built for days off between games and walk-it-up basketball, and of Bryant and his unusual will. Other teams, they often muse, are better one to 12, or November to March. Lately, that has meant the Bulls, the Pistons. Maybe, tonight, the Timberwolves.


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