Star-studded Lakers blend for 17-3 start
Tuesday, December 9, 2003
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Shaquille O'Neal has never been on such a tight-knit team.
Karl Malone is reminded of what it was like to play in high school.
Horace Grant and Gary Payton love what's happened so far but think there's plenty of room for improvement.
Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers have hit it off -- on the court and away from it. And much faster than anyone thought possible, producing an NBA-leading 17-3 record.
"This is the most talented team and the closest team I've ever played on," O'Neal said after practice Monday. "We should be 20-0. We let a couple slip away. When we clamp down and get mad, we're ... near perfect at times."
Nine of their victories have been by 15 or more points, and they bring a nine-game winning streak into Tuesday night's game against the New York Knicks.
The Lakers are 3-0 against the reigning NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. They also collected a 22-point victory over an Indiana Pacers team that was 14-2 entering the game.
The Lakers lost at Memphis, New Orleans and Detroit last month. They're 11-0 at home and have won 26 straight regular-season home games since losing to the Knicks 117-110 last February.
"We're playing well, but we haven't hit our groove yet," Grant said. "The new guys are still learning the offense."
Phil Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls to six championships in the 1990s and the Lakers to three from 2000-02. He acknowledged this season's team has come together faster than he expected.
"I think it's the attitude -- the players have a good attitude about playing together," he said, adding that defense has been a major factor.
Malone, the NBA's second-leading career scorer, and Payton, a nine-time All-Star, joined the Lakers as underpriced free agents during the offseason.
The Lakers were clearly in need, having been pretty much a two-man team before being eliminated by the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals.
"I'm having a great deal of fun," the 40-year-old Malone said. "The way guys are pulling for each other is very underrated. It's kind of like a high school team. "