Karl Malone is out, Shaquille O’Neal is questionable and Kobe Bryant’s shot isn’t falling with great frequency. Suddenly, the Los Angeles Lakers don’t look as formidable as they did when they ripped through the first two months of the season.
Fortunately for the star-studded Lakers, however, they get to face their city rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers, at Staples Center.
After learning that Malone will likely sit out at least another week with a sprained knee that has already cost him five games, the Lakers watched O’Neal suffer a strained right calf in Friday’s 111-109 loss to the SuperSonics— spoiling Gary Payton’s return to Seattle.
“He couldn’t push off his calf,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said of O’Neal. “We took him in the locker room and word came back from the trainer that he wouldn’t be back tonight. I can’t tell you any more than that right now.”
O’Neal received treatment on the injury Saturday, but remains questionable for Sunday.
Bryant, who is still distracted by an ongoing rape trial in Colorado, tried to compensate for the loss of O’Neal on Friday, scoring 32 points on 11-of-25 shooting. However, the star swingman has made just 25-of-69 shots over his last three games, and the Lakers have dropped three of four and five of eight to fall a half-game behind first-place Sacramento in the Pacific Division.
The Lakers boast a 22-2 record against the Clippers since the start of the 1996-97 season, including a four-game sweep of last season’s series.
The Clippers are 2-3 on their current six-game homestand, including Saturday’s 116-109 loss to Sacramento, which lifted the Kings over the Lakers in the division race.
“To be a good team, we need to play well down the stretch. And that just didn’t happen today,” Clippers forward Elton Brand said. “The last two minutes of the game really hurt us. Sacramento is a playoff team, a veteran-laden team, and they know how to execute. That’s what we’re learning right now.”
Quentin Richardson, who made a career-high 17 field goals en route to 44 points against Denver on Wednesday, was 9-of-22 for 21 points against the Kings.