Thursday, April 10, 2003

Shaq skips practice, upsets Jackson

By Chris Sheridan
The Associated Press

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - Shaquille O'Neal skipped practice Wednesday, and coach Phil Jackson was not satisfied with his excuse.

"He called, although he didn't call a number that reached any of us," Jackson said after the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers held a light workout and watched film in preparation for Thursday night's game against the rival Sacramento Kings.

"He didn't call, he had someone call for him," Jackson said. "Flat tire is what he said. That's all I know."

A flat tire in the O'Neal household would not seem to be an insurmountable obstacle. The 7-foot center is known to have a vast supply of automotive options in his oversized garage - far more than a dozen vehicles, according to one team employee's estimate.

"It bothers me, yeah," Jackson said.

At the same time, Jackson inferred that he would not make a big issue of O'Neal playing hooky, saying the team would move on and concentrate on the task of trying to become the first team in nearly four decades to win four consecutive NBA titles.

With four games remaining, the Lakers are in sixth place in the Western Conference and have a chance to improve their playoff seeding if they finish 4-0.

Portland, currently fourth in the conference, had its lead over the Lakers slip to one game after the Blazers lost to San Antonio 84-79 Wednesday night.

The Lakers will play at Portland on Sunday before finishing the season against the Nuggets and Warriors.

First, though, come the Kings, who have defeated the Lakers twice this season.

It will be the last regularly scheduled installment of the league's best rivalry, one that has included a preseason fight between Rick Fox and Doug Christie, a Christmas night victory by the Kings at the Staples Center, and a game last month in Sacramento in which O'Neal scored his 20,000th career point, only to find an obscene message written on the game ball when the Kings presented it to him.

"They don't need to win this ballgame, they've sewn up the Pacific Division," Jackson said. "If we want to move up in the standings, it's a must-game for us to win. Any loss now pretty much eliminates our chances of moving up to a different bracket."

At practice, Jackson had planned to emphasize a few offensive themes that he felt the Lakers were lacking the last time they played the Kings. But O'Neal's absence deprived Jackson of a big part of his intended audience.

O'Neal has been playing his best ball of the season lately, notwithstanding his 14-point output Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks and their zone defense.

He always plays well against the Kings, relishing the opportunity to dominate Vlade Divac - a center O'Neal often proclaims is the league's biggest flopper.

Jackson knows O'Neal well enough to be confident his center will be ready at tipoff, yet that didn't mitigate the bothersome nature of his blowing off practice.

Jackson has seen his team meander through this season with less focus than they've had the two previous times they defended the title. Only 31/2 months ago they were 11-19, but the Lakers have turned things around to such an extent that they've won nine of their last 10.

But just when things were seemingly going so smoothly, Shaq's flat tire put an unneeded bump in the road.

"Something we wanted to do as a team was to kind of push ourselves here and create a playoff atmosphere for ourselves," Jackson said, "so it's a little bit of a setback for us."

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