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Problem solved? Shaq's return sparks Lakers

11/23/2002

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Now that he's back, Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers face a period of adjustment.

"I think we all have to get used to playing with each other again,'' O'Neal said Friday night after making his season debut with 17 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes of an 86-73 victory over the Chicago Bulls.

"I felt pretty good, kind of rusty. It felt good out there to be with the guys. We just have to try and get back on the right track. ''

The win was just the second in nine games for the three-time NBA defending champions, who had struggled to a 3-9 start without O'Neal and were in the Pacific Division cellar.

Kobe Bryant, who had 21 points as the Lakers ended a three-game losing streak, obviously was pleased with O'Neal's return.

"I am as happy as can be, so glad he's back,'' Bryant said. "It makes the game easier.''

O'Neal, coming back from Sept. 11 toe surgery, showed he could
still make the big play, bringing a roar from the sellout crowd on
a spectacular leap, jump, catch and dunk off a lob by Rick Fox to
give Los Angeles a 75-65 pad with 5:10 remaining.

Asked about that play, Lakers coach Phil Jackson smiled and said, "Shaq likes the show part of the game, the style, and that's part of it that brings a joy to the game for us.

"It's nice to have Shaq back. He brings a certain amount of levity and intrigue to the game, no doubt about it. He was anxious and energetic and we got exactly what we hoped to get out of him tonight -- some points, minutes and a win,'' Jackson said.

The Bulls shot 35 percent from the floor and their 73 points were the fewest they've ever scored against the Lakers.

Donyell Marshall had 14 points and 14 rebounds, and Tyson Chandler had 12 points and eight rebounds, but leading scorer Jalen Rose was 2-of-16 and had only six points as the Bulls lost their fourth straight.

"Definitely not one of the best games of my career,'' said Rose, who was averaging 22.9 points a game. "It was just one of those days when I just didn't get it done. I wasn't there for my teammates.''

The game was close until Bryant dunked and then hit a 3-pointer in the final 1:16 of the third period as Los Angeles opened a 69-58
lead. The Bulls went cold after pulling within 69-65 early in the fourth quarter.

O'Neal didn't start, but came off the bench to a standing ovation in the first quarter.

Looking as mobile as ever but also a bit rusty with his ballhandling, O'Neal made eight of 13 shots and was 1-of-2 from the free throw line.

O'Neal started the second half after having 13 points and four
rebounds in 10 minutes during the first half. He played the first
5:36 of the third quarter, sat out the first three minutes of the fourth, then sat for good with 3:14 left and the Lakers up 81-65.

Fans in the sellout crowd of 19,000-plus began chanting "We
want Shaq!'' three minutes into the game.

In a pregame "trailer,'' a video of O'Neal training for his return was shown on the big board, a spoof of the "Rocky'' movies. O'Neal was shown grinning and punching, among other things, a slab of beef and a dummy.

Game notes
The Lakers are 49-43 in games without O'Neal since he came
to Los Angeles in 1996. ... The Bulls swept their two games against
the Lakers last season, beating them 106-104 in overtime in Chicago
and taking a 97-89 victory in Los Angeles. O'Neal took a swing --
and missed -- at Brad Miller in the loss in Chicago in January and
was suspended for three games. His sore toe kept him out of the
February rematch in Los Angeles. ... The Lakers placed Devean
George, who has tendinitis in his right ankle and has missed five
games, on the injured list.