It came as no surprise that Shaquille O'Neal was a driving force for the Los Angeles Lakers Saturday. Long before he was booed by the Delta Center crowd for his opening-day slap of Utah Jazz center Greg Ostertag, Shaq was steering his attention toward the postseason.
"Homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs is like the 405 (freeway) - a straight shot," O'Neal told the Orange County Register earlier this week. "Everything else is driving through the canyons."After Saturday's 106-91 loss to the Jazz, O'Neal and the Lakers likely face the latter. With a dozen games left in the regular season, L.A. (50-20) finds itself three games behind Utah (53-17) and 21/2 back of Seattle (53-18) in the race for the Western Conference's top seed.
The setback was a double whammy for Los Angeles. Not only could the Lakers have climbed back into the race for best record, they had a chance to clinch the season series with Utah - a valuable card to hold should the teams finish the year with identical records. L.A. has one more opportunity, on the last day of the regular season, to win a season series from Utah for the first time since 1987-88.
"We just have to bounce back and keep playing," O'Neal said after matching Karl Malone for game scoring honors with 31. The reigning NBA Player of the Week, a 50 percent free-throw shooter who made his first seven attempts against the Jazz, said the Lakers were felled by early foul trouble and "lucky-bounce" rebounding (42-23 for Utah).
"They stuck to their game plan and we got careless at times," Nick Van Exel said. "(Utah) just gained another game on us and so did Seattle."
Lakers coach Del Harris took a more philosophical approach to his team's first loss since March 16.
"We have to win tomorrow night (at home against Washington)," he said.
"That's all. We've got start a new string."
Playoff seeding weighs in the balance.
HAPPY FOR RICK AND THE UTES: Harris, a close friend of University of Utah coach Rick Majerus, wasn't surprised to see his buddy guide the Utes into the national championship game.
"It's just incredible what he's done. It's not a fluke because they play fundamentally sound basketball," Harris said. "They do it differently, but (the Utes) and Jazz are basically the same. That's the bottom line."
Harris recalled when Utah hired Majerus several years ago. His rotund friend and South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow were the finalists for the job. Each listed Harris, a former U. assistant years earlier, as a reference.
"When they called, I felt having spent some time here, that Rick was just a better match for the University of Utah," Harris said. "Though at the time I didn't know how good of a match it would be."