Danger Zone
Swarming D's, among other things, have put the Lakers' season in

Well, now what? The Lakers have lost with Shaquille O'Neal on the
shelf and with him in the lineup. They've lost when Kobe Bryant
has been a selfless passer and when he's been a soulless gunner.
They've lost when Phil Jackson has talked X's and O's and when
he's said stuff like, "The conjunctions of certain planets have
kept us apart." They've lost when Shaq and Kobe have lashed out
at their teammates and when they've shown them some love.

It's all so bewildering. In training camp the Lakers set their
cold gunslingers' eyes on a fourth straight championship, a goal
that seemed realistic even with O'Neal starting the season on the
injured list after toe surgery. Yet after a 109-107 overtime win
at Toronto on Sunday--one that seemed more like a loss
considering the lowly Raptors were without Vince Carter and
Antonio Davis--Los Angeles was in interplanetary disarray, with
an 11-18 record (including 8-9 with Shaq in the lineup) that
ranked 11th in the Western Conference.

The Lakers can't even agree among themselves on the reasons for
the slide. Forward Rick Fox thinks they sometimes stray too far
from their triangle offense, while others think it's merely all
the missed shots that are undoing an offense that is otherwise
running competently. Forward Robert Horry believes that his team
is complacent, while backup guard Brian Shaw says, "I don't think
that's the case."

Everything is as clear as a smoggy L.A. morning. It might seem,
for example, that Bryant, who had back-to-back games of 44 and 31
points last week, is playing as well as ever. But he's not. While
his 26.7point scoring average at week's end is in line with his
last two seasons, his shooting percentage (44.3%) is down
markedly, even with Shaq back and attracting defenders. The
proliferation of collapsing zone defenses, most often pointed to
as hindering Shaq, is also hurting Kobe, who sometimes looks as
if he's "it" in an enervating game of tag, so relentlessly do
teams gang-pursue him.

And since Kobe is the facilitator of the offense, that congestion
has hindered the execution of the triangle. Role players Fox,
Horry, Derek Fisher, Samaki Walker and Devean George--who were
shooting a collective 39.3% at week's end--are finding their
customary looks unavailable as Bryant attracts defenders like
aphids to a tomato plant. Because the passing lanes are clogged,
says Shaw, "We don't get those jumpers from the corner of the
free throw line and the baseline."

Still, the prevailing theory--that the Lakers will be the class
of the league when O'Neal is 100%--might turn out to be correct.
In describing how sick he is of losing, Shaq said last week that
he is "pissed off to the highest point of pissivity." But given
the hole the Lakers have dug for themselves, it's going to take
more than I've-had-it declarations from the game's most dominant
player. Teams have developed a taste for beating L.A. and, it
seems, a defensive plan for doing it.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Even with O'Neal back in the lineup, Bryant is finding that he has very little elbowroom.

around the Rim

How puny are the Cavaliers' crowds? During a recent game against
the Sonics a fan in Gund Arena's upper deck yelled "Hey, Gary!"
while Gary Payton shot free throws. After shooting, Payton looked
up and yelled, "What?"... Only three months after a car crash
that left him with four cracked vertebrae, DerMarr Johnson was
firing jumpers on the Hawks' practice court last week. He even
dunked once.... Though Hakeem Olajuwon retired in November,
Raptors G.M. Glen Grunwald is shopping him. Olajuwon is due $12
million over the next two seasons; teams may try to acquire him
for players with longer contracts to gain cap room.... The
Nuggets, who traded leading scorer James Posey last week, were
averaging 80.2 points through Sunday, which over a full season
would be the lowest mark in history.

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