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Growing Pains The youthful Lakers look like world-beaters at times, but they still make careless mistakes that create doubt about whether they're ready for a title run

Shaquille O'Neal may look intimidating, but it turns out he's
really quite user-friendly. If you don't believe it, the next
time you're out in cyberspace, stop in at Shaq World, O'Neal's
Web site (, which is designed for the
Internet-savvy fan who believes there is no such thing as too
many Shaq facts. You can peruse Shaq News, analyze Shaq Stats or
have a Shaq Chat, and, most remarkably, you can Watch Shaq Grow.
A click of your mouse will bring to the screen a baby picture of
O'Neal, which will transform seamlessly into a series of other
Shaq photos, each one with O'Neal slightly older than the one
before, allowing him to morph in a matter of seconds from an
infant into the 315-pound Los Angeles Lakers center he is today.

In the real world, however, the maturation process isn't nearly
so fast or easy, as O'Neal and his teammates are discovering.
The youthful Lakers--everyone on the L.A. roster is under 30,
and the Lakers' average age is 27.8--have looked like
championship material at times, but they've seemed more like
babes in the woods at others. So far their wealth of talent has
been enough to overcome their erratic nature; even after a
101-89 loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday they were 39-17 and
in second place in the Pacific Division. But the shortcomings
that have bedeviled Los Angeles, including lackluster defense
and poor execution near the end of close games, will prove fatal
if they aren't eradicated before the playoffs. "We've had a
couple of lapses, and we've also had some injuries," says
forward Rick Fox. "It seems like every time we've slipped a
little and the criticism has started, we've recovered and gotten
back to playing good basketball. That's a good sign, and maybe
we've learned a few things along the way."

That's the good spin. The bad spin is that roughly two thirds of
the way into the season not even the Lakers know how good they
are. Are they the team that started 11-0? Or are they the club
that through Sunday had been a less impressive 28-17 since and
had fallen 4 1/2 games behind the Seattle SuperSonics in the
Pacific? Are they the team that sent four players, O'Neal and
guards Kobe Bryant, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel, to the
All-Star Game? Or are they the club that lost five of its first
seven games after the All-Star break? Are they the team that
talked about a renewed commitment to defense after holding the
Milwaukee Bucks, the Indiana Pacers and the Minnesota
Timberwolves to 81, 89 and 91 points, respectively, in three
straight road wins last week? Or are they the club that backed
up that talk by surrendering 101 points to the badly undermanned
Knicks, who coming in had cracked the 100-point barrier only 13
times in 55 games this season?

The Lakers aren't overly concerned about their ups and
downs--"We're just trying to keep you guys off balance," says
forward Robert Horry, referring to the media--but they realize
they have a lot of work to do before they're ready to face more
experienced teams like the Sonics and the Utah Jazz in the
postseason. "I really think it's hard for anyone to judge us,
it's hard even for us to judge ourselves, because we're not
completely healthy," Horry says. "When we have our full team on
the floor, that's when we'll find out where we are in terms of
being ready for the playoffs."

Los Angeles won't be at full strength until at least mid-March,
when Van Exel, who has been out since Feb. 18, is scheduled to
return from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Doctors
removed a bone chip and scar tissue from the back of his kneecap
that had been causing a clicking sensation in the joint.
Although the procedure alleviated Van Exel's discomfort, nothing
can be done for the condition, which means he will have to play
with it for the rest of his career. Add that to the chronic
soreness in his other knee that Van Exel has dealt with for the
last two seasons, and it's clear that coach Del Harris will have
to apportion Van Exel's minutes carefully.

Van Exel isn't the only Laker who's hurting. Horry has been
playing with a groin injury, and O'Neal occasionally winces from
a lingering strain of an abdominal muscle, an injury that has
dogged him since training camp in October and has caused him to
miss 21 games. On the other hand, Bryant, the 19-year-old
prodigy and media darling, is in fine fettle; it's his game that
isn't. He admitted to being fatigued after the All-Star weekend,
during which he fulfilled interview requests from everyone from
MTV to Meet the Press. He also has had to cope with the first
rumblings of an anti-Kobe backlash, with Jazz forward Karl
Malone criticizing him for having hogged the ball in the
All-Star Game. Then there's the increased attention he's getting
from defenses now that he has established himself as an
explosive threat off the bench. "Early in the season, if I got
by one guy, I was free," Bryant says. "Not anymore."

All of those factors seem to have combined to send him into the
first slump of his two-year career. He has struggled since the
break, particularly last week, when he went 3 for 12, 1 for 8, 4
for 12 and 4 for 15 from the field, humbling numbers for a
player who has known few hard times on a basketball court. After
the loss to New York he said the last time he had been this
frustrated by his play was when he was a junior in high school,
which might sound like a long time ago until you remember that
Bryant was harkening all the way back to 1995.

However, even these struggles can't dampen Bryant's good
spirits. His popularity among fans stems not just from his
talent but also from the way he appears at all times to be a
teenager enjoying the ride, living out a grand experiment. "This
is the toughest stretch I've ever gone through," he said last
week. "I'm hating it, but I'm loving it. It's part of the
challenge, it's part of the fun. Am I pressing? Maybe. That's
something I'll have to think about. I want to go through periods
when I'm struggling, because that's when you learn, and the more
you learn, the better you get."

With Van Exel out, Bryant has become the backup point guard as
well as the backup shooting guard, but the biggest burden at the
point has fallen on second-year man Derek Fisher, a fearless
tree stump of a guy from Arkansas-Little Rock. The 6'1",
200-pound Fisher, chosen by L.A. with the 24th pick in the 1996
draft, has turned into another example of executive vice
president Jerry West's ability to find hidden talent.

"He looks like a little barrel out there, but he's quite an
athlete," says Harris. "He's an opportunist, and he's quick.
He's been great for us because he understands that with the
talent he has on this team, he doesn't need to be spectacular.
As long as he takes care of the ball, gets us into our offense
and plays tough defense, we've got plenty of other guys to take
care of the scoring."

Fisher can score when necessary--he had a season-high 20 points,
along with six assists and five rebounds in the victory at
Indiana--but his performance two nights later against Minnesota
was more typical of what the Lakers expect from him. While
scoring only six points, he had eight assists and six rebounds,
and perhaps most important he helped harass Timberwolves point
guard Stephon Marbury into 5-for-17 shooting in a 104-91 L.A.
win. "Even though it's only temporary, I have to think of this
as my team," Fisher says. "My teammates have been great about
being supportive and letting me know that I can feel free to
take charge, and as long as I don't let my confidence get shaken
if I miss a shot or make a bad pass, I'll be all right."

Los Angeles's confidence could have been shaken by the stretch
immediately following the All-Star break, in which four of its
five defeats were to teams it may face in the Western Conference
playoffs--the Sonics, the Houston Rockets, the Phoenix Suns and
the Portland Trail Blazers. Even more disheartening was that
three of the games were narrow losses, with opponents making the
clutch plays that the Lakers could not. There was a 113-108
overtime defeat at home to Seattle, which has won both of its
games against L.A. this season. Charles Barkley's 18-foot jump
shot with 3.6 seconds left gave the Rockets a 90-88 win in Los
Angeles, and Magic guard-forward Nick Anderson made a
three-pointer with 7.1 seconds remaining to beat the Lakers
96-94 in O'Neal's first game in Orlando since he left the Magic
to join Los Angeles as a free agent before last season. "The
reason we lost those games was inexperience," says Harris. "They
were mistakes that veteran teams don't make. It seems like every
game we lost was because a veteran on the other team made a big

But once the Lakers rebounded with three straight wins, they
were quick to downplay the rough stretch. "I didn't look at it
as a slump," O'Neal said last Friday after the win over
Minnesota. "We just weren't shooting the ball well. We knew once
we got our shooting stroke back, we'd be fine, and we are."

At least they were until they played in New York. With centers
Patrick Ewing and Chris Dudley and power forward Buck Williams
out with injuries, the Knicks went to a small lineup in which no
starter was taller than 6'9". Yet they somehow limited the 7'1"
O'Neal to 19 points on only 16 shots and took the game away from
Los Angeles by finishing with a 12-2 run. Once again the Lakers
made critical errors down the stretch. They seemed to forget
about their biggest mismatch, O'Neal against the undersized New
York front line, and failed to get Shaq the ball in the final
three minutes. "It seemed like we got a little bit frantic on
offense," Fisher said afterward. "We took quick shots instead of
letting things develop more."

On defense Los Angeles lost track of the Knicks' hottest
shooter, guard Allan Houston, on a crucial possession in the
closing moments. Houston drained a three-pointer that gave New
York a 92-87 lead and left Horry and Fox exchanging heated words
about who should have been guarding him. "Sometimes we outscore
people so easily that we forget there's another end of the
floor," said Fox.

The Lakers seem to forget a lot of things when they get in too
much of a hurry, which is why their immediate plan is to slow
down their offense a notch, look for better shots and make a
concerted effort on defense that lasts more than a few games at
a time. There has never been any doubt that L.A. has the style.
The rest of the season will reveal whether it has substance.
"Sometimes, when you look and look and look for something, it
disappears," says Bryant, referring to the loss of his shooting

That may be true, but you get the feeling it wouldn't hurt the
Lakers to look a little harder.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO REALITY CHECK Bryant (8) has struggled on offense since drawing more attention from defenses. [Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Chris Mullin and others in game]

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN STUFFED After winning three straight games, Jones and Co. were brought down to earth by Larry Johnson and the Knicks. [Larry Johnson blocking shot by Eddie Jones]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER STIFLING By shutting down Marbury (with ball), Horry and the Lakers showed what kind of defense they can play. [Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury and Robert Horry in game]


One of the lingering questions about the Lakers is their ability
to win the close ones. Through Sunday, L.A.'s record in games
decided by five or fewer points was worse than the mark of 12
other teams, all but one of which is a playoff contender.


1. Seattle SuperSonics 9 2 .818
2. (tie) Charlotte Hornets 11 3 .786
Miami Heat 11 3 .786
4. Golden State Warriors 5 2 .714
5. Phoenix Suns 12 5 .706
6. Minnesota Timberwolves 9 5 .643
7. Boston Celtics 10 6 .625
8. Indiana Pacers 11 7 .611
9. Orlando Magic 11 8 .579
10. Chicago Bulls 8 6 .571
11. Utah Jazz 9 7 .563
12. Portland Trail Blazers 10 8 .556
13. Lakers 6 5 .545


"Sometimes we outscore people so easily that we forget there's
another end of the floor," said Fox.