Originally created 12/05/01

Shaq, Kobe & crew look virtually unbeatable



LOS ANGELES -- A revelation came to Shaquille O'Neal as he watched the Lakers beat the SuperSonics on a locker-room TV after being ejected early in the game.

"I kind of realized this is a good team without me," he said.

So what does that make the Lakers with O'Neal, the NBA's most dominant player?

Perhaps the best team in league history, one capable of challenging the 72-10 record of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in 1995-96.

"There aren't that many teams that can beat us," O'Neal said. "It's all about us. We still haven't played our best basketball."

With the pick-your-poison pair of O'Neal and Kobe Bryant settled comfortably into their roles in the triangle offense, and with a stronger supporting cast, the two-time defending NBA champions look better than ever.

Despite coach Phil Jackson's prediction they would struggle early, the Lakers are off to a franchise-best 15-1 start. Even more impressive, they are 38-2 dating to the final eight games of the last regular season and their 15-1 waltz through the playoffs against the best of the rest.

In the past week, they easily beat two teams most likely playoff-bound: the Milwaukee Bucks, by 19 points, and the Minnesota Timberwolves, by 26. And despite losing O'Neal because of two technical fouls, they won by 15 over Seattle, which was 4-0 against Los Angeles last season.

For the season, the Lakers have outscored opponents by an average of almost 12 points a game.

O'Neal and Bryant are the obvious reasons.

No opponent has a center who can match up with the 7-foot-1, 315-pound O'Neal. If he's double- or triple-teamed, he quickly fires the ball back out to Bryant - who's been making most of his medium-range jumpers this season - or to another open teammate.

If the Lakers keep it up, they will break that Bulls' record record of six years ago.

"I think they can, if they just stay patient and make sure everybody stays on Phil's page," said Minnesota's Anthony Peeler, a former Laker. "Kobe's playing within the system and everybody's being very patient and playing off the big guy."

The Lakers, whose lone loss was a 95-83 defeat at Phoenix on Nov. 16, will try to win their ninth straight Wednesday night when they face the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center.

Jackson, who has added two NBA rings with the Lakers to the six he earned as coach of the Bulls, considers it too soon to talk about how good this team really is, or even how successful they'll be this season.

He does think the Lakers - who added Samaki Walker, Lindsey Hunter and Mitch Richmond in the offseason - have more good players than the teams he coached in Chicago.

"This is a deeper team, with more people with the ability to play well," he said. "You can see that when Shaq and Kobe are on the bench."

Shaq and Kobe have been on the bench a lot in the fourth quarter recently, laughing and cheering as the Lakers' reserves mopped up. And when they're not on the bench, they're virtually unstoppable.

"It's the same old story, with those two guys. They're two of the best players in the world," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said after a recent loss to Los Angeles. "You have to be perfect to beat them."

Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said: "The Lakers have played a lot of teams, and they haven't given them a chance. They're playing at an extremely high level and with a lot of confidence."

Bryant, at 23 already in his sixth NBA season, likes the team's chemistry. He was happy with the Lakers' offseason moves and points out that he, O'Neal and Derek Fisher have been a unit since 1996.

The good vibes are helped by the fact that Bryant and O'Neal, who feuded in the past, have become pals, with O'Neal even touting Bryant for this year's MVP Award.

"Kobe's been doing a good job of keeping everybody involved in the game," O'Neal said. "We have a lot of unselfish guys."

Los Angeles assistant coach Kurt Rambis, who played on four NBA championship teams during the Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era, said the current Lakers "have an air about them."

"Winning the two titles has given them a real confidence," Rambis said. "They know what they can do, they know how to win and they're very comfortable."