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After an 11-0 start, Lakers looking far from perfect

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In starting the season with an 11-0 record, the Los Angeles Lakers were frighteningly good, blowing out opponents while playing most of the time without All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal. The question now is: What happened?

Suddenly, the Lakers look like a team that's not interested in basketball, especially after their recent slide that included losses to the Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers, dropping the Lakers into second place in the Pacific Division.

"Confidence," was Kobe Bryant's response, when asked what was wrong with the team. "We're not playing like we're the No. 1 team. There was a certain attitude when we had the winning streak going. A certain cockiness, like we can't be beat. Now we're coming out like we are anticipating a dogfight, instead of just putting teams away."

The loss two weeks ago to Philadelphia was seen as an aberration. But Wednesday's loss to the woeful Warriors was shocking, considering that Golden State players even detected the Lakers going through the motions in the nationally televised game.

"It didn't seem like they wanted to be out there playing," said Golden State center Erick Dampier. "Yeah, we could sense that. It seemed like they didn't want to be out there."

Maybe the Lakers are simply biding their time until the return of O'Neal, who could be back later this month from a strained abdominal muscle. But instead of sending a message around the league about how dominant they could be without their best player, the Lakers instead have displayed a vulnerability that also surfaced in their playoff loss to the Utah Jazz last season.

"I don't know if it's enthusiasm," Rick Fox said. "Just a failure to recognize these teams are all out to knock us off. It's one thing to know it, another to react and respond like you're being hunted."

Knicks in trouble

At least the Lakers have shown signs of life this season, which can't really be said for the New York Knicks, who were blown out by a struggling Bulls team on Tuesday.

The main problem with the Knicks is that their "best" player -- Patrick Ewing -- has continued to show a decline in skills and a deterioration in knee strength that are almost making him the second-most effective center on his team (yes, at times, Chris Dudley is showing more than Ewing). Already this season, Ewing has been outplayed by rookies Michael Stewart (Sacramento) and Scot Pollard (Detroit).

" We're not scoring down there [in the post] one-on-one at a good enough rate to draw double teams," New York coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "We're not scoring -- second shots, layups, post-ups -- and we're looking to avoid contact rather than take it on."

Maybe it's time for Ewing to renounce his annual "we're going to win a title" promise. These days he can't even win respect.

Around the league

Alonzo Mourning is traveling with the team for the first time this season, leaving the possibility that he will return to action this week. Mourning had surgery on Sept. 27 to repair a torn patellar tendon in his left knee and, in his absence, Isaac Austin has played to nearly an All-Star level.

In the wake of the Latrell Sprewell suspension, Miami Heat forward Jamal Mashburn is concerned about how the league interprets Section 16 of the Uniform Player Contract, which prohibits engaging in acts of moral turpitude. "I think the league has to be careful in the way it interprets things, because, depending how you look at it, you can pretty much terminate a player's contract if he's not performing," Mashburn said. That idea has Jim McIlvaine shaking in his boots.

How did Chicago fans greet Scottie Pippen when the Bulls played at home last weekend for the first time since his demand to be traded? They chanted "Scot-tieee, Scot-tieee" in the closing minutes of a win over Milwaukee. "I expected people to pay high respects for Scottie," Michael Jordan said. "They know exactly his worth and what he's done for the city. I'd rather for him to come back and play."

The NBA staged its first regular-season game in Mexico City last weekend when Houston beat Dallas. But don't count on expansion south of the border into the world's most populous city. "Geographically, it may make some sense," said Mavericks president Terdema Ussery. "But I think getting 15 players to live there seven months a year would be a real challenge."

The Phoenix Suns won their 13th game on Thursday when they defeated the Atlanta Hawks. Last year Phoenix, which started the season with 13 straight losses, didn't get win No. 13 until Jan. 13.

Minnesota's loss to Seattle on Tuesday was the 26th straight to the Sonics, an NBA record for domination of one team by another. The last time the Timberwolves beat Seattle, in 1991, Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury were both 14 years old. Marbury has had a particularly tough time against Sonics guard Gary Payton, hitting just 24.7 percent (19 of 77) in five meetings.

Tim Duncan won the first Rookie of the Month award this season, but the best first-year player in the league might be the one who debuted for New Jersey last week. Keith Van Horn, the second pick in the draft, averaged 18.5 points in his first four games, increasing his scoring on each outing. Van Horn, 6 feet 10, has an all-around offensive game: three-point range, post-up ability and the capability to drive to the basket. "I really like his game," said Wizards forward Chris Webber after Van Horn scored 23 points against Washington last week. "He plays with a lot of confidence, and he'll only get better and better."

Isn't it interesting that at a time when coaches are making multimillion-dollar contracts, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- he of little personality during his playing days -- wants to coach? "The game needs my knowledge," Abdul-Jabbar said last week. "The game needs to know what I know." Maybe he should have verbalized what he knows during his playing days.

Game of the week

Los Angeles Lakers at Atlanta, Friday night. It probably would have been game of the year two weeks ago, when both teams started the season with 11-0 records. Despite their recent slumps, this should be an interesting matchup between two of the top teams in basketball.

Quotable

"We're not here to discuss the facts." -- Attorney Johnnie Cochran, during Sprewell's news conference.

"I guess it means I'll have to play 49 minutes instead of 48." -- New Jersey Nets forward Jayson Williams, on the stress-fracture injury that will keep All-Star forward Chris Gatling out of the lineup for at least three weeks.

Jerry Bembry can be reached via the Internet at Jeryol.com

Jerry Bembry's power rankings

Top 10

PTC 4( (last week's ranking in parentheses)

1. Miami (4): Zo may be back next week.

2. Seattle (3): Payton setting tone.

3. Houston (6): Barkley rejuvenated.

4. Atlanta (2): Missing injured Henderson.

5. L.A. Lakers (1): Suffering after 11-0 start.

Utah (7): Stockton's back.

7. Cleveland (--): Starting three rookies.

8. Phoenix (9): Will miss KJ.

9. Portland (5): Solid frontcourt.

10. Orlando (--): Better without Penny.

Bottom 5

25. L.A. Clippers (26): Face Seattle twice this week.

26. Dallas (25): Players actually like Nellie.

27. Golden State (29): Will the real Joe Smith

28. Denver (28): Still winless on the road.

Toronto (27): Ended 17-game losing streak.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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