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Celtics merely hackers

Their strategy for O'Neal, Lakers fails

LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers entered last night's game in a slump, according to coach Phil Jackson. He wanted more enthusiasm, more energy, more passion from his players. Above all, he wanted more winning basketball. Jackson did not get everything he wanted in the grind-it-out, foul-filled (at least when it came to Shaquille O'Neal) game. But the Lakers did post a convincing 105-82 win over the Celtics at the Staples Center, snapping a two-game losing streak. It was the Celtics' most lopsided loss of the year.


"Slump?, Lakers?," said Celtics coach Jim O'Brien. "It didn't look like a slump to us. They beat the living hell out of us tonight. So if they're in a slump, they seem to be out of it."

For Boston, the first half proved to be the calm before the storm. The third quarter turned out to be a warmup act for a fourth-quarter blowout by the Lakers. Sloppy play (23 turnovers by the Celtics, 21 by the Lakers) and lapses in concentration (missed dunks by Kobe Bryant and O'Neal) resulted in poor shooting, but that was just fine by the Lakers, whose struggles have been most pronounced on defense. The Lakers allowed opponents to average almost 105 points per game in the six contests before last night's. Both teams struggled to shoot better than 40 percent from the floor, though the Lakers managed to build a game-high 24-point lead in the fourth.

The Lakers extended their lead to double figures in the third, establishing a 79-64 advantage at the end of the quarter. The Lakers closed the third with a 9-2 run, putting them in control entering the fourth. O'Neal made his presence felt early and often in the third, starting the quarter with a slam dunk, a layup, and a 3-point play. Despite a strategy to contain O'Neal (22 points) by sending him to the foul line, the big man topped the list of seven Lakers who reached double figures. O'Neal finished 10 for 20 from the line. The Celtics placed five players in double figures, led by Paul Pierce (24 points).

"He's obviously the most dominant player in the game," said Pierce of Shaq. "When you've got a guy like that it kind on messes up your defense because you are so worried about him . . . Everybody knows they are a championship-contending team. We're not at that level yet. The Lakers consistently compete at that level."

If anyone at the Staples Center wondered how the Celtics would guard O'Neal, any and all questions were answered just 40 seconds into the game. That was when Mike James tried to slap the ball out of O'Neal's hands. James had the right idea, but the execution was late as O'Neal scored the Lakers' first basket with a layup.

"We're going to foul him every time he gets the ball with two feet in the paint," said O'Brien before the game. "It's basically the way everybody in the West plays him that has succeeded against him. We don't want him to catch the ball down there. We'll press him. We've had success against him doing that a lot last year. We have five guys where we can use six fouls."

Needless to say, 6-foot-2-inch James was not one of the five players O'Brien had in mind. But the Celtics did send O'Neal to the line 11 times in the first half, and he made just five free throws. By the time Michael Stewart wrapped up O'Neal in the low post with 1:08 remaining in the second quarter, the big man's frustrations began to show. Stewart was called for the foul, while O'Neal was tagged with a technical for throwing elbows. The two also briefly exchanged words.

The strategy the Celtics used to contain O'Neal plus significant contributions off the bench from Chris Mihm and Marcus Banks helped the visitors stay close throughout most of the first half, despite an 0-for-6 start and a couple of other costly scoring droughts. The Lakers entered halftime holding a 57-49 lead.

After the Celtics momentarily took the lead (10-9) when Pierce hit a 3-pointer early in the first quarter, the Lakers responded with a 19-5 run. "We were playing well coming into this game," said Vin Baker (13 points). "We felt this was a game we could get but they're a very good basketball team and we didn't give our best tonight. We didn't give ourselves a chance to win."

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