New-look Lakers have even newer look with Bryant out

  • By Rich Myhre / Herald Writer
  • Monday, January 24, 2005 9:00pm
  • Sports

SEATTLE – Shaquille O’Neal was gone before the season, sent to Miami in a multiplayer trade.

Now Kobe Bryant is absent, the victim of a badly sprained right ankle.

What remains is a squad that bears little resemblance to the Los Angeles Lakers teams that won three consecutive NBA titles between 1999-2000 and 2001-02. In fact, just one player from the championship seasons – backup center Stanislav Medvedenko – will be in uniform tonight when the new-look Lakers host the Seattle SuperSonics in a 7:30 p.m. game at the Staples Center.

Today’s game: Seattle vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 7:30 p.m., Staples Center. Radio: KJR (950 AM) TV: FSN (cable)

That said, these are still the Lakers and their home is still Los Angeles. Which means, said Sonics guard Ray Allen, “that the whole aura, with the celebrity environment, hasn’t changed.”

The Lakers “still have the yellow and purple,” Allen went on, citing the team’s familiar colors. “And I don’t think much of the mystique changes. The tradition is still there, no matter how you look at it.”

And even though this Lakers team is probably not a title contender, it is still good enough to be squarely in the Western Conference playoff race. After starting slowly under new coach Rudy Tomjanovich, Los Angeles has won six of its past eight contests, including four of five since Bryant was injured in a Jan. 13 game with Cleveland.

Instead of running the entire offense through Bryant, with the other four players standing around to see what happens, the Lakers are now “moving the ball and sharing the ball,” said Seattle coach Nate McMillan. “They seem to be playing loose and free. They’re just playing basketball, they’re playing together and they’re playing with a lot of confidence.”

With Bryant (the league’s second-leading scorer at 27.5 per game) on the sidelines, forward Lamar Odom has become the team’s designated go-to guy. The 6-foot-10 Odom, who was acquired with Brian Grant and Caron Butler in the summertime trade for O’Neal, is averaging 14.9 points and a team-best 10.2 rebounds a game.

“Odom seems to have the ball a lot,” McMillan said. “They isolate him, and he tries to draw (the defense) and kick (the ball to open teammates). And he’s doing a good job of it. He likes to get everybody involved and he likes to distribute the ball.”

“When Kobe is in the game, you pretty much know he’s going to take most of the shots,” Allen said. “But without him in the game Odom has the ball more and he’s looking to pass more.”

Because the other Lakers are not waiting to see what Bryant will do, he went on, “those other guys are being more aggressive and taking more shots. So we can’t be sitting there watching one guy. We have to pay attention to everybody out there on the floor.”

Something else about the Lakers stands out, too. They shoot 3-point shots nearly as often as the Sonics. Seattle is second in the NBA in 3-pointers attempted (23.1 per game) to Phoenix (23.9), while the Lakers are third (22.7).

Losing Bryant has cut into LA’s perimeter arsenal, of course, “but they’re still shooting a lot of 3s,” McMillan said. “That’s something Rudy likes his players to do.”

Lastly, in a statistical showdown that could be meaningful tonight, Los Angeles is the NBA leader in defensive rebounds (32.0) and is second in total rebounds (44.3), while Seattle is the league leader in both fewest opponents’ defensive rebounds (25.5) and total rebounds (37.5).

After tonight’s game, the Sonics will fly to Salt Lake City for a Wednesday night game against the Jazz. Seattle’s road trip closes with a game at Golden State on Friday night, and from there the Sonics play six of eight at home leading up to the mid-February All-Star break.

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