|Lake Show back in the flow?|
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist
So ... according to Phil Jackson, "The Lakers are playing as well as anybody in the league." So ... they're finally over .500 and only a hop, skip and a dunk away from qualifying for the playoffs. So ... Shaq's tootsies are healed, and he's once again terrorizing the paint. So ... Kobe is routinely serving up 40-plus points per game. So ... everything seems to be hunky-dory with the defending champs.
All of which only means that it's time to push the pause button and take another look at what's really happening in La-Dee-Da Land.
Since the last time the Lakers appeared in these parts (a humiliating loss in December at New Jersey), Derek Fisher did indeed deliver on his promise to demonstrate his leadership by getting into his teammates' faces. (See "How to Right the Good Ship Laker.") "I mostly sought guys out one-on-one," Fisher says, "and asked them pointed questions about where they thought the team was at, and how and why we got there. For the most part, everybody's responded."
For the most part.
Here's the buzz around the rest of the team:
"Kobe's making his shots, but that only feeds the monster. He still needs to pass more."
"No matter what Phil or any of the other coaches say, Kobe has his own agenda for every game. He'll go entire quarters without taking a shot, or without making a pass. Other times he'll do nothing but fire away. Every game is a surprise."
Same old, same old -- it still comes down to whether (and how much) Kobe is willing to submit his personal glory to the demands of the triangle offense. To discover what's what, I subjected Kobe's initial touches during last week's game against the Knicks to the same scrutiny as I did when the Lakers were bombed in New Jersey. (In the loss to the Nets, Kobe made only two team-oriented decisions the first eight times he handled the ball in the offensive zone.)
Against the Knicks, Bryant made nine excellent decisions (plus a bonus for setting a serious screen) in his first 10 touches. (Check out the inline box at right for a possession-by-possession breakdown.) Despite scoring only two points in the first quarter, Kobe helped the Lakers control the game and surge into a 24-19 lead after the first 12 minutes.
In the interim, I come across Spike Lee, resplendent in his Knicks jacket and hat, and wearing a Knicks' jersey emblazoned with the numeral 8. After telling him how much I admired his latest flim, "The 25th Hour," I point to his jersey, saying, "I see that you're wearing Sweetwater Clifton's number. Ha, ha."
"Huh?" Lee says.
Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton? A 6-foot-6, 235-pound center and ex-Globetrotter, whose real name was actually Clifton Nathaniel? The first black man ever to play for the Knicks (1950-57)!?
"Never heard of him," Lee says.
To start the second quarter, Bryant runs the baseline, fakes coming to the wing, cuts back door instead, then leaps to snag a pass from Fisher and stuff the ball through the ring.
Ah, the perfect play!
Shaq and Bryant soon take control of the game with a variety of bully moves and scintillating leapers and spinners. When Shaq tosses up an airball, it fortuitously lands in the hands of Robert Horry, who quickly converts the unexpected layup. A wag in the media section says, "In Los Angeles, that's an assist."
Everything seems to be working for the visitors: As the Lakers increase their margin, Jackson orders them to two-time the ball when Charlie Ward crosses the time-line, and the surprise maneuver produces two turnovers. Devean George forces Sprewell to a "help-spot" along the baseline, just in time for Shaq to arrive and smack Sprewell's shot into the stands. Only the Knicks' long-distance dialing keeps the score respectable.
What goes wrong for L.A.? Walker fumbles three passes. After the ball is dumped into Shaq, the Lakers' squeeze-action picks are desultory. Playing with the second unit, Bryant forces a shot or two or three.
Then, with a minute left on the game clock, Bryant executes an incredible baseline drive and presto-chango dunk that's destined to be the highlight of the highlight clips for the rest of the season. Shaq's response is to nearly tear down the basket with a mighty dunk just before the buzzer.
The Lakers' halftime lead is 60-45.
But let's not get carried away, Laker fans. Yes, as Phil said, they're playing as well as anyone else. And it's fine to drub the Knicks, and to beat the Kings (without Chris Webber), the Jazz, and the Pacers (without Ron Artest). But the Lakers aren't nearly up to championship form. Right now, their S/R defense is weak, they commit too many turnovers, they have trouble finishing games, and if Bryant is producing buckets galore, he still has only one foot in the corral. Yes, the Lakers have certainly picked themselves up off the floor and are moving in the right direction. But there's still an awful long way to go from here to there.
While the MSG maintenance staff lowers the basket that Shaq has atrocitized to check for cracks and loose screws, it's only appropriate that another visitor appears: Darryl Dawkins, "Chocolate Thunder" himself. Although the very first backboard destroyer was the Boston Celtics' Chuck Connors (who later gained fame as The Rifleman), Dawkins made it a celebration. Among Dawkins' most noteworthy slammers were the In-Your-Face-Disgrace; the Sexophonic Turbo-Delight; and the No-Playin'-Get-Out-of-the-Wayin'-Backboard-Swayin'-Game-Delayin'-Super-Spike.
Dawkins rates Shaq's latest whammo-slammo as a B-plus. "It was good," says Double-D. "Nothing fancy. Just pure power."
And despite Bryant's first-half heroics, Dawkins refuses to commend Shaq's junior partner. Says Dawkins, "I played ball with Jellybean, Kobe's father, so I've known Kobe since he was born. My momma taught me never to say anything bad about anybody, so all I'll say about Kobe is that he still needs to grow up as a player and as a person."
The spaces in between Bryant's 24 third-quarter points are amply filled by Shaq's full repertoire of dunkers, spinners and faux jump shots. At quarter's end, Shaq and Bryant total 68 points, and the Lakers lead 97-67.
With the Lakers two superstars on such a rampage, isn't the triangle offense superfluous? Not according to Rick Fox.
"The standard NBA offenses are very predictable," the Lakers small forward says. "Some screen/rolls, lots of isos, and a concentration on two-man situations. After a while, the defenses know exactly where the ball is going to be and how the play is supposed to unfold. Sometimes we get into the same rut. We'll drop the ball into Shaq or Kobe, then stand around and watch them do it. But when we're executing our offense, the defense always has to guess exactly where our point of attack will be."
Fox is also reluctant to unduly praise Bryant's occasional scoring extravaganzas: "When scoring comes too easy for Kobe, that's not really the best thing for the team. Obviously, we sometimes need him to just take over, but we didn't win three championships with Kobe scoring 45 miracle points every night. We need a collective approach to both offense and defense.
"Guys like Robert, Fish and me have to be scoring threats the whole game. Guys like us can't be uninvolved in the offense and then be asked to make clutch shots in the end-game. When we get the right shots at the right times, we'll shoot a higher percentage and play with confidence and consistency. And when we're cooking, that also opens up loads of space for Kobe and Shaq."
With the tempo, and the game, seemingly in hand, the Lakers begin their All-Star break 12 minutes early. Suddenly, the Knicks start to click. Michael Doleac hits a bunch of mid-range jumpers. Charlie Ward cans a 3-pointer. And the Knicks are off on a 10-0 rampage to start the quarter.
At the 8:14 mark, Jackson makes a radical move. Normally, coaches will only substitute two new players at a time, knowing that they'll need several trips up and down the court just to get loose. In the meantime, three holdover players are usually sufficient to keep the offense percolating. But to insert three cooled-down subs at once is to invite a scoring drought. Yet Jackson sends Brian Shaw, Kareem Rush and Stanislav Medvedenko in for Shaq, Walker and Fox.
The Knicks respond with another three buckets to run their point-streak to 16. Finally, after the Lakers are scoreless for five minutes, Fisher plugs a jumper and the score is 99-83. But the Knicks keep firing away -- Sprewell, Howard Eisley, Ward and even Lee Nailon nail 3-balls. And Jackson sends the starters to the rescue.
The Lakers' lead is down to 107-100 when Bryant has the ball on the left baseline. Guarded by Sprewell, Bryant furiously dribbles in place and fakes in 10 directions at once, but Sprewell holds his spot. More dribbles, more fakes, until the ball bounces off of Bryant's leg and rolls out of bounds.
Sprewell hits a long jumper. Bryant misdribbles, and with the game clock ticking down to the last minute, the Knicks are trailing 107-102 and need one more big play. But Shaq smacks a shot by Sprewell, the Lakers regain possession, and the Knicks' last gasp is thwarted.
Powered by Bryant's 46 points and Shaq's 33, the Lakers finally prevail 114-109.
In the postgame locker room, the Lakers unanimously praise the Knicks' comeback to the assembled media. But in private, they feel that the home team played well only when they were behind by 30. "It was a BS comeback," says one player. "They never really had a shot to win. Hey, when it did get close, what happened? Shaq blocked a shot, then Ward shot an airball. We knew, and the Knicks knew, that their spurt was really bogus."
Uh oh, is this a sign of some deeper trouble, or just some flotsam left over from a blowout turned into a squeaker? Watch this space for further developments.
In any case, in what condition are the Lakers' chops as they head into the break?
"Until somebody eliminates us," says one player, "we're still the champs. Our game isn't completely in gear yet, but I promise you it will be by the playoffs. Man, I'd love to play the Kings in the first round. Bet your boots that those guys are staining their drawers at the prospect of having to face us so early. Are we worried about having to play them? Not at all, because the Kings are wussies."
So as the season approaches the clubhouse turn, the wise money never bets against the reigning champs.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."