Originally created 01/25/02

Lakers in a slump, but it's only January



LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers are in a little funk, which isn't headline news considering it's January and they've played this act before.

So don't expect the two-time defending NBA champions to panic any time soon, that just won't happen. And it shouldn't at this time of year, especially with a team as good as the Lakers.

Nevertheless, it's clear they aren't playing anywhere near their best ball these days, and aren't in the best of spirits, either.

Shaquille O'Neal, who recently returned from a three-game suspension for taking a punch at Brad Miller following a flagrant foul by the Chicago center on Jan. 12, isn't speaking with reporters.

That always seems to happen for a brief time once or twice a season.

And the team's locker room was filled with media members but no players for a long time after a 95-90 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night before Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant finally surfaced.

"Two losses in a row, two rings in a row," Bryant said with a shrug following the Lakers' second straight loss and fifth in seven games.

"A pattern, what kind of pattern are you talking about?" Lakers coach Phil Jackson responded when asked if he was worried about back-to-back losses to Denver and the Clippers. "Who says we should beat those teams? They're playing better than we are. We're not putting full games together."

The Lakers attempt to avoid their first three-game losing streak in 2 1/2 seasons under Jackson when the San Antonio Spurs visit Staples Center on Friday night.

These are the same Spurs who were buried by the Lakers in a Western Conference finals sweep last spring, and the same Spurs they beat 98-81 last Saturday in San Antonio in the final game of O'Neal's suspension.

Taking that into account, and considering the stronger the opponent the better the Lakers usually play, it seems unlikely the losing streak will reach three.

But even if it does, it's only January, not April, May or June when the games really count.

"It's a long season, you take the good with the bad," Bryant said. "Move on, there's no sense in blowing up or getting too upset.

"Every time we lose, the locker room is dead quiet as it should be. You have to understand, we're going for a three-peat, it's going to be more challenging. We have to be more patient with each other. And believe it's going to come around."

It certainly came around for the Lakers two years ago when they lost six of nine about this time of year before beginning a 19-game winning streak.

They went on to finish the season with an NBA-best 67-15 record before winning their first championship in 12 years.

Last season was altogether different, although the Lakers wound up celebrating in June again.

They were an up-and-down team most of the season, and it got especially ugly in January when the simmering feud between Bryant and O'Neal went public.

Finally, Bryant sat out nine games and most of a 10th late in the season due to a sprained ankle, and that gave him a chance to clear his head and see what was happening on the court.

He returned to help the Lakers win their last four games of the regular season, and then came the 15-1 breeze through the playoffs when he played the best basketball of his career.

O'Neal was his usual dominant self and the role players also did their jobs as the Lakers blew past Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio and Philadelphia.

"You grow tremendously as a basketball team when the dust settles and the players figure these things out for themselves," Jackson said of the down times.

"Basketball just turns on a trifle. It's a matter of what we can do to get better, not about the fact we're in the same rut we were in last year."

That rut came to an abrupt end in April, and everyone knows what happened next.