The Last Word

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:05 AM ET

It says a great deal about just how far the Los Angeles Lakers have fallen that the most genuine standing ovation of the year at the Staples Center was for a cameo appearance by Shaquille O'Neal.

Really, what else has there been to cheer about?

Memories are about all they have.

With O'Neal and guard Kobe Bryant grappling constantly for top-dog honours, the Lakers won three NBA titles in five years under coach Phil Jackson in his first stint at the helm. These were the Showtime Lakers, merging Hollywood with hardwood.

Jackson, Bryant and O'Neal were the Lakers' holy trinity -- The Father, The Son and the Low Post. History now makes it clear what most observers felt at the time: O'Neal was the key.

ANKLE INJURY

Shaq, still recovering from an ankle injury that has kept him out of all but two Miami Heat games this season, showed up Sunday at the Lakers-Charlotte Bobcats game, sat with friends courtside and was accorded an appreciative reception from the L.A. fans.

Zen Master Jackson, improbably, in his own opinion, is back this season as coach after a year away, but he is managing a lineup that is a shell of the outfit that dominated at the start of the millennium.

He may be pining for a soothing Tibetan retreat sooner rather than later.

Bryant still is there, at the tender age of 27 already a 10-year NBA veteran, with his health and all his skills intact but without a foil to complete the circle. Last year, the Lakers missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1993-94 season and they have every opportunity to do it again this year.

Heading into last night's game in Milwaukee, the first of a six-game trip that passes through Toronto (tonight), Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas and Memphis, the Lakers were a mediocre 7-9, largely because, like the Raptors, they are a defensive trainwreck.

The Lakers are 19th in scoring defence and opponents are averaging 96.9 points per game. Toronto is worse, 28th out of 30, at 102.83. Tonight's game at the Air Canada Centre has all the makings of a track meet.

Bryant still shoots first and asks questions later. Or at leeast others ask questions later. He's averaging about 30 shots and 32 points a game. Lamar Odom has stepped up his game in an attempt to be a legitimate second threat, but he is averaging only 15 per game.

"We'll get to a point where we'll start executing better and I won't have to take as many shots and the game becomes easier for everybody," Bryant told reporters earlier this week.

But when teams score 39 points in the fourth quarter, as Minnesota did last Friday in overcoming a 15-point L.A. lead, then you know there are problems that run deep.

Their one major off-season acquisition, Kwame Brown, has been hobbled by a bad hamstring. But even before the injury, it was clear he hasn't yet developed into a prime-time player, averaging six rebounds and as many points in his nine games.

When last Bryant and his coach were under the same basketball roof, during the 2003-04 season, Jackson went to ownership and, essentially said: "Him or me. What's it gonna be?"

At the end of the year, owner Jerry Buss kept Bryant and showed Jackson the door and Jackson, in his book, blamed Bryant.

By the end of last year's disaster, Buss was willing to welcome Jackson back on a three-year contract for a reported $30 million US.

Remarkably, this time around, Bryant and Jackson seem to be tolerating each other like a couple of real adults.

"Do I hold any hard feelings? None whatsoever," Bryant told the Los Angeles Times in October, when asked about Jackson. "You forgive and move on. Life is too short to hold grudges.

"I matured a great deal. Two or three years ago would I have had the same response? Probably not. But, you know, you just grow, take your bumps and bruises as you get older."

Given the unsettled state of the Lakers this year, that is a healthy attitude.

This is a team that is going to suffer more than its share of bumps. 


Videos

Photos

Canoe Top Headlines