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A Spring in Lakers’ Step

Times Staff Writer

Well, having lost May, November is pretty much theirs.

Less than defending NBA champions for the first time in four seasons, the Lakers went after the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night with something close to springtime ferocity.

They went after Tim Duncan with Karl Malone and Tony Parker with Gary Payton and the referees let them have at it, all of which ended in a 103-87 victory at Staples Center, one of the most stirring and complete regular-season Laker wins in recent memory.

Shaquille O’Neal returned to the Lakers’ lineup after two games resting a strained right calf. While a handful of others ran an offense that dismantled one of the league’s distinguished defenses, O’Neal, whose release was sticky, was content to change shots and take rebounds.

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“My teammates,” he said, “played very, very well.”

Malone had 10 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, the fourth triple-double of his career and first in more than three years, and was the toughest, most committed defender in Duncan’s 11-point game. Malone, 40, is the oldest player in NBA history to record a triple-double.

“An individual thing,” Malone said, almost dismissively.

“It’s more important we keep this thing going,” he said. “Sure, it was a big game. With all the hoopla, maybe it was one of the big games of the year. But there’ll be more big ones. Hopefully, in June.”

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Devean George, often left alone on the perimeter, scored a season-high 19 points on eight-for-nine shooting. Payton and Kobe Bryant each had 17 points. It was the Lakers’ fifth consecutive win, the five by an average of 19.4 points, their lead against the Spurs hovering around 30 for much of the second half. They have won 24 consecutive regular-season home games, tying a Los Angeles-era record.

Near the end of the third quarter, the in-house camera found Jack Nicholson in his usual courtside chair, and he made matching circles with his thumbs and forefingers.

“Perfect,” Nicholson mouthed. “Perfect.”

It was a sentiment that carried the evening in an arena of fans still stung by last season’s playoff departure, freshened by the sight of Robert Horry in the Spurs’ black and silver. On their way to last season’s NBA championship, their second in five years around the Lakers’ three-peat, the Spurs eliminated the Lakers in six games in the Western Conference semifinals. The final game was on the Lakers’ floor.

The chill of that sent the Lakers in search of help, telephone calls that brought Malone and Payton. As a result, the Lakers are more determined defensively, more focused on the off-days and 13-3.

“They made an immediate impact, just jumped right into it,” Bryant said of the free agents, new to the Laker-Spur rivalry.

So, the routine of the regular season dissolved in the anticipation of what Malone could do with Duncan and what Payton could do with the basketball, if any of it could slow the Spurs’ ascent in the West. In what they expect to be a comeback season for the organization, the Lakers are 2-0 against the Spurs with Game 3 on Wednesday night in San Antonio.

“I think it’s very infectious,” Coach Phil Jackson said of the tenacity shown by Malone, in particular. “He and Gary both have impact and energy on the floor. We really needed a physical presence out there. We thought we’d lost the physical nature of our team.”

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In a game that had their attention since, say, May 15, the Lakers disappeared on a 21-4 run through the meat of the third quarter, pushed the lead to 30, and cleared their bench early in the fourth quarter.

“I don’t know if we were that good,” Jackson said, “or they were just that bad tonight.”

O’Neal was well enough to play, but perhaps not well enough to summon his usual game. He scored seven points on six shots in 25 minutes and deferred to the others.

Before the first half was done, both Duncan and Malone were bleeding and/or swollen.

Malone took Malik Rose’s right foot to the mouth, opening a nice gash in the first quarter.

In the second, Duncan bit on a Malone pump fake and came down hard on Malone’s right elbow -- how the Lakers would see it, anyway -- leaving Duncan wiggling his teeth and with a bright red blotch on his cheek. Duncan missed seven of 10 field-goal attempts, Parker 11 of 17.

“I played like that for 18 years,” Malone said.

Gregg Popovich, the Spur coach, said people might be expecting too much from his club, considering David Robinson and a handful of others are gone.

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“We’re exactly where we were last year, trying to put together a team to see how good we can be,” Popovich said. “For the nth time, we’re not the defending NBA championship team. That team is not in existence any more.”

The Lakers would treat them differently. The Spurs are the team that won eight games against them last season, four in the regular season and, more pointedly, four in the playoffs.

“It’s true,” Popovich said. “This is a different basketball team with different people. The team that we put on the court right now did not win the NBA championship last year.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

November Reign

The Lakers’ record in the first month of the season under Phil Jackson. The Lakers play host to Indiana on Sunday:

*--* SEASON OCT.-NOV. 1999-2000 11-4 2000-2001 11-5 2001-2002 14-1 2002-2003 6-11 2003-2004 13-3

*--*

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Deep Discount

Although the Lakers appear to have a deeper bench, the averages aren’t that different compared to last season:

*--* LAKERS 2002-03 2003-04 Starters’ average 79.4 80.1 Bench average 21.0 23.3

*--*


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