Saturday, May 8, 2004

Hollyweird catching up to the Lakers

By Jim Litke
AP Sports Columnist

Playing in the shadow of Hollywood finally caught up with the Los Angeles Lakers. They're in danger of becoming just another movie-industry cliche, like "Gigli," a cautionary tale about what happens when the chemistry between superstars boils down to petulance.

Remember what somebody said about the old Boston Red Sox; that every time the team left a ballpark, "it was 25 guys, 25 cabs?" Cut the number of players by half, substitute "limos" for "cabs" in all but a few of cases and you've pretty much got the Lakers.

They're too much about stars and not enough about system. They've turned sharing the basketball into a liability and defending into a blame game. Down 2-0 to San Antonio as the best-of-seven playoff series heads west, there's so much finger-pointing in the Lakers' huddle lately that it looks like an airport information desk. And their problems won't be so easily sorted out.

The trouble this time isn't just Shaq and Kobe, although their feud hangs over the proceedings like a low-grade headache. It's more about Gary Payton being too old or too selfish to change, and Karl Malone being too old and too selfish, and Phil Jackson being too weary to conjure up one more happy ending.

Unlike the movies, help isn't on the way. The supporting cast barely merits a mention and it's increasingly clear that the Zen Master has run out of Zen.

Someone asked Jackson whether he and Payton were on the same page, and his answer - "I don't have to be on Gary's page. He has to be on our page" - would have been the same no matter whose name came up.

It's almost painful to watch Jackson get a dose of every other coach's medicine. The egos he used to massage with great skills no longer respond to the touch. One of his greatest strengths as a coach has been patience, but everything about the first two games in San Antonio suggests that after five years on the job, he is running on fumes.

Because Jackson likes players to figure out most puzzles by themselves, he used to call time out, stroll a few paces onto the floor and stand there with his back turned to the huddle. If he tried that in this series, somebody would be jabbing a finger between Jackson's shoulder blades the instant he whirled around.

"We had some miscommunications tonight," Jackson said after Game 2, "and some of that was my fault."

No doubt.

Jackson may have given up trying to reach Payton or Malone, and he's dangerously close to losing the rest of his squad. He spent most of one time-out early in the fourth quarter Wednesday night staring at Bryant. Instead of rising to the challenge, Kobe turned passive early on and then tried to take over the game at the end by himself.

His timing couldn't have been worse. The supply of the ball to O'Neal dried up just as the big man was starting to dent the defense. By the time the Spurs regrouped, that option had pretty much disappeared. It made you wonder whether something Shaq's stepfather said after the Lakers' collapse in Game 1 -"The game is played inside out, not outside in" - wasn't still ringing in Bryant's ears.

In the past, Jackson let wins and losses make his points for him, but only because he had so much more talent he could wait out the competition. He doesn't have that luxury this time around.

The Spurs are way too good to be beaten by a team that isn't even as good as the sum of its celebrated parts. Tony Parker is abusing Payton at the moment, and San Antonio's depth enables them to win the matchups everywhere else. When Bruce Bowen needs a break from guarding Bryant, Manu Ginobili fills in capably and makes Bryant's life even more miserable at the other end of the floor. Spurs coach Greg Popovich has enough big men to hound Shaq effectively for three quarters, then moves Tim Duncan closer to the basket for the fourth to nail down the advantage.

So far, it's enabled San Antonio to own the final period, a development that has to gall Jackson most of all. Over the final 5:18 of Game 2, the Lakers were held to zero baskets and just five free throws.

L.A.'s big four of O'Neal, Bryant, Payton and Malone was supposed to be a dream team. Because of injuries, they've played together for a total of just 50 games and because of distractions, Jackson has had even less time to knit together all those loose ends and egos.

Whether he still has enough energy to try ought to be apparent in the opening minutes of Game 3. If the Lakers are still playing for themselves by then, this is one film you won't have to sit through to see how it turns out.

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