- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

LOS ANGELES As it turned out, Godzilla and King Kong waged a bigger battle in the old, campy Japanese movies that came out of Toho Studios than did the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant and the Washington Wizards' Michael Jordan.
Bryant and Jordan only went head-to-head sporadically in the Lakers' 103-94 victory Tuesday night at Staples Center. Bryant was the best player on the court, notching his third career triple-double (23 points, 11 rebounds, a career-high 15 assists) to lead the Lakers from a 20-point third-quarter deficit.
But with the second half of the season officially under way, the most important thing to guys like Washington coach Doug Collins and Jordan is the message the Lakers sent in beating the Wizards without injured center Shaquille O'Neal.
It's time to toughen up.
Both sounded that urgent message following a game in which the Wizards, who had their five-game winning streak snapped, were beaten by a team missing its most physical player, O'Neal. The physical style of the Lakers produced a 44-37 rebound advantage. And perhaps more importantly, Wizards guard Richard Hamilton had trouble dealing with the rough play. After scoring 12 points in the first quarter, Hamilton, clearly bothered by the Lakers' willingness to body-up on him, scored just five points the rest of the way.
"I thought the physical nature that they played in the third period really changed the game and we never could get back in sync," Collins said. "They pressured our guards, they took away our entry passes and forced us out of our offense. I thought they were just a much more physically strong team than us. They sort of pushed us to the side. Even without Shaq."
Jordan said the Lakers defense, among the best in the league, was key, especially in the third quarter when the Lakers outscored the Wizards 42-26. The Lakers turned up their defensive intensity and the Wizards basically wilted from the heat.
"Their pressure totally knocked us out of our rhythm in terms of what we were doing at the time," Jordan said. "We were moving the ball well, penetrating and getting everybody involved. Their defense stepped it up and we just never really got into sync. They knocked us totally out of our offense."
The Lakers had nothing to prove. They are playing without O'Neal, who has a bad foot, but they are still the overwhelming favorite to win their third consecutive title if O'Neal is healthy, as he is expected to be. And even without O'Neal, the Lakers had their own message to send. Twice in the game the Lakers where whistled for flagrant fouls that might have served to intimidate the Wizards.
"People see the gold uniforms on and with us being from Southern California they think we're soft," said Bryant. "They think we're not going to get down and dirty and scrap for every possession that we have, and that was very insulting to me. We want to fight until the buzzer goes off. We're not backing down from anybody."
Such determination is what the Wizards will need to earn a playoff berth. From Jordan on down they expect to make the postseason, particularly now that the Eastern Conference is as bad as it's been in years.
The Wizards' present three-game road trip will offer Washington its best chance to gauge itself for what will be a tougher second half to the season. Tonight the Wizards face the Sacramento Kings, who are 26-1 at Arco Arena.
And even though the Wizards defeated the Kings at MCI Center in their last game before the All-Star break, that was with the Kings coming to the end of a tiring road trip. And it also was before an article linking Chris Webber to super model Tyra Banks appeared in the Sacramento Bee. Webber threatened to not speak to the local media for the rest of the season.
"I did every [bleeping] thing ya'll asked and then ya'll violate me like this," Webber said as part of an obscenity laced tirade following the Kings victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday.
Jordan knows the playoff landscape all too well. And he also knows that the Wizards still have a long way to go despite a promising season that could find them finishing above .500 for only the fourth time since the 1986-87 season.
"We've got a long way to go," Jordan said. "We've got to learn how to stand our ground and stay connected. If we start separating and trying to do it individually we're not going to have as much success because we're not as deep as some of these teams.
"I mean, the Lakers are still a championship quality team even without Shaq. I think we learned a great lesson from that loss."
Chances are they'll get another one tonight.

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