- The Washington Times - Friday, November 8, 2002

The Los Angeles Lakers lack a Shaq, so the Washington Wizards won't have to hack a Shaq.
The three-time defending NBA champions, not surprisingly, have hardly looked title-worthy without Shaquille O'Neal, their mountainous center who has missed the season's first six games following offseason toe surgery. He is expected to miss tonight's game against the Wizards before returning for the Lakers' next game, Tuesday against Atlanta.
Not that the Wizards mind all that much. They're just fine with facing the Lakers in the first of their two meetings without O'Neal.
"You can't really assess yourself against a team that doesn't have the best player [in the league]," Jerry Stackhouse said. "They're the dominant team because of Shaq. [Kobe Bryant] is a great player, but they're not the same team with Shaq not being in the fold."
That much is for certain. Last season, Los Angeles opened 16-1 and didn't lose its third game until Dec.11, but Tuesday night's blowout loss to Cleveland, in which the Lakers set a franchise-low scoring record (70 points) since the move to Los Angeles in 1960, left them at 2-4 after last night's overtime loss at Boston.
Bryant has not disappointed, leading the Lakers in scoring in each of the first six games and putting together two straight triple-doubles. On Tuesday, he came up one assist shy of recording his third triple-double in a row, a feat not accomplished in the NBA since 1997.
With Rick Fox suspended for the first six games after instigating a brawl in the preseason finale against Sacramento he is reinstated for tonight's game Bryant represented the only scoring threat.
That opponents could afford to target him became difficult for Bryant to handle at times; an ESPN.com story reported that Bryant had feuded with assistant coach Tex Winter about his "triangle offense," and after hoisting an average of 21 shots through three games, took 13 on Tuesday as the Lakers were routed.
Getting Fox back tonight will bolster the Lakers lineup, but it won't fill any holes on the inside, where Los Angeles needs the most help right now. Samaki Walker and Stanislav Medvedenko are manning O'Neal's post in the middle until he returns, but that's like a Backstreet Boy filling in for one of the Three Tenors.
"We still know they're a great team, we know what they're capable of," Wizards center Etan Thomas said, "but it is a different game without Shaq, so you have to change your entire plan for the game."
For the guard-oriented Wizards, that plan could feature the Wizards' big men more, who put together one of their best games collectively in Wednesday night's victory over Cleveland. Thomas, Kwame Brown, Brendan Haywood and Jared Jeffries combined for 33 points and 19 rebounds and helped limit Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who entered averaging 19.7 points, to six points on 3-for-14 shooting.
"With Stackhouse and MJ penetrating and kicking it to us, they make it easier for us when they do that," Brown said. "[Coach Doug Collins] challenged us in the second half, he really got on the big guys, and I think we stepped up pretty well and responded."
In catching the Lakers at a good time not only are they without O'Neal but they'll be playing the second half of back-to-back road games tonight the Wizards are setting up nicely to finish a four-games-in-five-nights stretch tomorrow night in Cleveland with three victories. That possibility was not lost on Collins, who has re-emphasized the importance of the Wizards not digging themselves a hole at the beginning of the season, as they did a year ago.
"I told the guys last night, if we can find a way to get the Lakers [tonight], go to Cleveland and find a way to get a win, then we get three out of four this week, we get a day off on Sunday and get ready to have a few home games," Collins said. "So these next two games are very important for us."

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