Lakers get their stars aligned


Phil Jackson had heard all the stories about the Los Angeles Lakers being two different teams, one belonging to Shaquille O'Neal and the other to Kobe Bryant. Even before he began coaching them this season, Jackson could tell that by watching the Lakers on television during a year's hiatus at his home in Montana.

He knew that getting the two stars to play together would be his most important - and difficult - task. It wasn't just that they needed the ball to showcase their remarkable talents. Or that they were inherently selfish players. Their games were distinctly different, and not only because of their positions as a center and a shooting guard.

"It was a very divergent style," Jackson said recently.

O'Neal's career had seemed to stagnate a bit with the Lakers after such a promising start in Orlando, and the team had floundered in the playoffs. Bryant, who came into the league four years ago out of high school, had periods of growth followed by bouts of digression.

Despite being only seven years apart, they were of two different generations and, in a way, cultures.

"Shaq was rap and Kobe was hip," Jackson said last week. "We had to make them 'hap.' "

As in happy, which everyone surrounding the Lakers is right now after the team made its first NBA Finals since 1991. The Lakers will take on the Indiana Pacers, the Eastern Conference champions, beginning tonight at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The road has been more difficult than for most teams that breeze though the season as the Lakers seemingly have done.

In the beginning of the year, Jackson's 'hap' could have meant hapless, as the team struggled though an exhibition season trying to learn the new offense. While there have been stretches during this year's playoffs when each has fought his instincts to take control of the team, it is now apparent that they now understand how much stronger they can be when their force becomes collective.

It was obvious in the fourth quarter of Game 7 Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals at Staples Center. Trailing by as many as 16 points late in the third quarter and by 15 with 10 minutes left in the game, O'Neal and Bryant took over - together. If O'Neal was Superman - like the tattoo etched into one of his redwood-sized biceps suggests - then Bryant was some other larger-than-life figure.

While the Lakers are not expected to get the same kind of challenge from the Pacers than they received from the Trail Blazers - or even the Sacramento Kings, their first-round victims - O'Neal and Bryant have been put on alert. Lose, and people will talk about them as players unable to live up to the hype. Win, and the same folks will start to talk about the Lakers as the NBA's next dynasty.

Should the Lakers win their first title since 1988, Jackson likely will get more credit than he did during any of his six championships in nine seasons coaching the Chicago Bulls. It will be deserved, because the melding of O'Neal, the league's Most Valuable Player, and Bryant, a second-team All-NBA selection, was no simple feat.

Jackson has said it took more on Bryant's part to give up some creativity and the potential for bigger stats than it did for O'Neal, who was the league's leading scorer this season. Their personalities are nearly polar opposites. O'Neal, 28, is still very much a teen-ager in a 7-foot-2, 330-pound body. Bryant is mature beyond his years, but he is still just 21.

Despite the team's success this season - the Lakers had the league's best regular-season record - it was still a struggle at times to get each to understand his role. What might have helped Jackson initially was Bryant's missing the first month with a broken hand, which allowed O'Neal to become comfortable in the new offense.

Eventually, though, it came down to Bryant's accepting second billing on the team's marquee.

"He's become more cooperative, more community-minded [on the court]," Jackson said of Bryant. "He's been very coachable, but he has a stubborn streak."

There are still times when Bryant feels the need to take over, as happened throughout the season and occurred in the series against the Trail Blazers. It sometimes leads to Bryant's forcing shots, or trying to drive when the opening is not there. It also had led to Bryant's turning the game in his team's favor, as happened in Game 7.

After getting chewed out by Jackson late in the third quarter for making a couple of questionable plays, Bryant ended the quarter by flying through the air to block a shot by Portland's Bonzi Wells. It jump-started Bryant, and eventually the Lakers, in their remarkable comeback.Bryant finished the game with 25 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, the last of which was a perfectly executed short lob pass to O'Neal, whose one-handed dunk with 40 seconds left ended Portland's comeback hopes. O'Neal scored 18 points - nine in the fourth quarter.

"I took it as a personal challenge," said Bryant, whose last-second block of Portland center Arvydas Sabonis helped win Game 3. "They had been going at me all series long. They had been trying to expose me and get me into foul trouble. It got to a point where it really got under my skin."

Given Bryant's court presence, there are times when Jackson simply has to let him orchestrate. There are also times when even his teammates forget how young Bryant is, given how long he has been around. Bryant said earlier in the season that he is still a bit of an outsider, given the age difference between him and veteran teammates such as Ron Harper, Glen Rice, Brian Shaw and team sage John Salley.

Salley, who came out of two-year retirement to play again for Jackson, said O'Neal and Bryant might have led the Lakers to the Finals, but they might not yet be the kind of leaders who can motivate their teammates. Certainly not the kind of leader Isiah Thomas was on the championship teams Salley played for in Detroit or Michael Jordan was in Chicago.

"Neither of them is very vocal," Salley said. "Eventually they will be, but right now they lead by their actions."

And yet the Lakers are a reflection of their two young stars. Bryant, in particular, remains highly erratic and so do the Lakers. Being forced to a fifth game in the opening series against the Kings after winning the first two games, then blowing a 3-1 lead against the Trail Blazers, does not speak of a dynasty-in-the-making.

It says something about a team - and its two key components - still learning how to play together.

"Any team goes through growing pains," O'Neal said. 'That's happened to us all year long."

The Lakers might have had a growth spurt in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Trail Blazers. Yet the pressure remains clearly on Los Angeles, given that even those few who picked Portland to win the West don't seem to have any faith in the Pacers to win it all.

Victory, and the comparisons will be made to Jackson's dynasty in Chicago.

Defeat, and the comparisons will be made to recent playoff disasters by one the NBA's most celebrated teams.

It's up to Shaq and Kobe.


NBA Finals

Indiana vs. L.A. Lakers

(Best-of-seven series)

Today: at L.A., 9 p.m.

Friday: at L.A., 9 p.m.

Sunday: at Indiana, 7:30 p.m.

June 14: at Indiana, 9 p.m.

June 16: at Indiana, 9 p.m.*

June 19: at L.A., 9 p.m.*

June 21: at L.A., 9 p.m.*

TV: Chs. 11, 4

*-If necessary

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