Wed, Dec 10, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Lakers begin to find their groove

AP , EL SEGUNDO, CALIFORNIAAND ORLANDO, FLORIDA

Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant, right, and Shaquille O'Neal during the first quarter of NBA action against the Chicago Bulls in Los Angeles, last month.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Shaquille O'Neal has never been on such a tight-knit team.

Karl Malone is reminded of what it was like to play in high school.

Horace Grant and Gary Payton love what's happened so far but think there's plenty of room for improvement.

Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers have hit it off -- on the court and away from it. And much faster than anyone thought possible, producing an NBA-leading 17-3 record.

"This is the most talented team and the closest team I've ever played on," O'Neal said after practice Monday. "We should be 20-0. We let a couple slip away. When we clamp down and get mad, we're ... near perfect at times."

Nine of their victories have been by 15 or more points, and they bring a nine-game winning streak into Tuesday night's game against the New York Knicks.

The Lakers are 3-0 against the reigning NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. They also collected a 22-point victory over an Indiana Pacers team that was 14-2 entering the game.

The Lakers lost at Memphis, New Orleans and Detroit last month. They're 11-0 at home and have won 26 straight regular-season home games since losing to the Knicks 117-110 last February.

"We're playing well, but we haven't hit our groove yet," Grant said. "The new guys are still learning the offense. When we hit our groove, the league better look out."

Phil Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls to six championships in the 1990s and the Lakers to three from 2000-2002. He acknowledged this season's team has come together faster than he expected.

"I think it's the attitude -- the players have a good attitude about playing together," he said, adding that defense has been a major factor.

"That's a ticket to winning games," Jackson said.

Regarding the closeness O'Neal brought up, Jackson smiled and said: "I've noticed that Shaq has lost his nickname of Mr. Moody. That's a pleasure for us if players get along together.

``I've been with teams who have had great on- and off-court rapport. I've been with teams who have had on-court rapport and no off-court rapport. I'm enjoying watching the behavior on airplanes, on buses going to shootarounds.''

Malone, the NBA's second-leading career scorer, and Payton, a nine-time All-Star, joined the Lakers as underpriced free agents during the offseason.

The Lakers were clearly in need, having been pretty much a two-man team before being eliminated by the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals.

Now, O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have plenty of support, including the emerging Devean George and Slava Medvedenko, along with Derek Fisher and newcomers Grant and Bryon Russell.

When Malone and Payton joined the Lakers, both said a championship ring was the thing -- something that's eluded them in their sterling careers.

"I'm having a great deal of fun," the 40-year-old Malone said. "The way guys are pulling for each other is very underrated. It's kind of like a high school team. It's not the big things that are keeping my hunger for basketball. It's the little things -- the closeness of the guys. I haven't had that since high school. That says a lot."

Malone said he's been more impressed with O'Neal than anything else.

"He's not looking to score 30 points anymore," Malone said. "He's looking to win ballgames."

Bryant leads the Lakers in scoring and Payton, for one, is surprised the Lakers have done so well. He entered the season believing they wouldn't come together until early next year.

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