Shaquille O'Neal's return from a strained right calf remained hazy on Wednesday night, five nights after he suffered the injury and two before the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs would come to Staples Center.
As it was, O'Neal sat out his second game, this against the Washington Wizards.
Ninety minutes before game time, O'Neal, in a raspberry-colored outfit, shifted his weight to his right leg, grimaced and said he was barely at 65%.
"If I get up to 80, I should be OK," he said. "If I feel the way I feel now, though, I won't play against the Spurs."
O'Neal is hesitant to come back too soon, lest he struggle against what he would consider a mediocre opponent and be ridiculed.
"It's getting a little bit better," he said. "But I don't want to do what I always do, try to come back early and mess everything up. I get judged when I'm not 100%."
O'Neal's perception during the playoffs was that club officials did not publicly support him when his knee was sore and hindered his play, one of a number of O'Neal-related issues cited by Kobe Bryant to ESPN a month ago.
"When I live in a home," O'Neal said, "I want stuff to go the way it should go."
"This weekend is very important," O'Neal said. "These are powerhouse teams. They're going to be forces. We are going to be a force. So, we've got a tough weekend ahead, but a good one."
"I'm not totally satisfied with the way the roster is sitting," Jackson said. "We have three big guys. That's not enough in this game."
He didn't sound as though a trade were in the offing, as big men don't come cheap, and generally not for little men. Also, any capable power forward/center has a job or isn't entirely capable.
"We need a little backup help," Jackson said. "So, right now, we're a little bit short in the size department.... We need to get guys healthy."
Gary Payton began Wednesday night's game 21 assists behind Rod Strickland for sixth on the NBA's all-time list. He was expected to overtake Strickland in the next week or so, but Strickland signed with the Orlando Magic and has become a moving target.
Shown the league's career assist leaders Wednesday night, Payton looked over John Stockton's record (15,806), followed by Mark Jackson, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas, Strickland and himself. Robertson's scoring average -- 25.7 -- particularly affected Payton.
"Man, Oscar," he said. "He was doing it. Twenty-five-seven. Man. He was just doing it."
Zeus Ayter, a senior broadcast journalism student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, is the 2003-04 recipient of the Chick Hearn Memorial Scholarship.