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LAKERS HAVE LONG WAY TO GO DESPITE BEING 2-0.

Byline: Howard Beck Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO - If they could only unstrap themselves from the electrical-stimulation machines long enough, bend a thumb without yelping, walk a few feet without something throbbing, the Lakers might look up and notice the collision course they've charted - and worry.

Their probabilities of advancing to the second round shot up with Monday night's rout of the Houston Rockets, which gave them a 2-0 series lead. The San Antonio Spurs are humming along in the parallel bracket, with a 2-0 lead on the Memphis Grizzlies.

History implies a Spurs-Lakers showdown sometime in the next couple weeks.

Only 14 teams have come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a series, and the Lakers haven't lost a series they led 2-0 since the 1969 Finals.

In the past 12 years, only one No. 2 seed has lost its first-round series. Since 1984, when the current playoff format began, only four No. 7 seeds have advanced.

So Lakers scouts and coaches are slowly, quietly organizing their Spurs files though, respectfully, not making dinner reservations on the Riverwalk just yet.

The fact is the Lakers need every quarter of their current series to get themselves functioning properly. The honest among them concede they are not playing at the Spurs' level. But by virtue of that dramatic season-ending victory at Portland, which threw them into the Spurs' bracket, the Lakers have little time to straighten out their triangle.

``I think individually and collectively, we're always a work in progress. I think that's just the reality of it,'' Derek Fisher said Tuesday. ``I don't think you're ever in a place where there isn't work to be done. But as far as comparing ourselves to (the Spurs), and being ready to maybe play at the level they're playing on right now, I don't know.''

So far, San Antonio has dominated the Grizzlies, winning the two games by an average of 20.5 points. The Lakers barely escaped Game 1 with a one-point win, and by good fortune more than good play - Kobe Bryant's 3-point airball landing in Shaquille O'Neal's hands for the go-ahead dunk, Jim Jackson's wide-open 3-pointer falling short at the buzzer.

Even as the Lakers cruised to a 98-84 win in Game 2, they took another hit to their health, and O'Neal suffered the worst game of his spectacular postseason career - seven points in 33 minutes.

Slava Medvedenko, their only experienced backup at the power positions, showed no progress a day after straining his right Achilles' tendon in Game 2 and is questionable for Friday's Game 3 in Houston.

For every encouraging sight - Kareem Rush's emergence as a deadly shooter (4 for 6 from the 3-point arc), Fisher's re-emergence as an offensive threat (eight points per game), Karl Malone's 17-point game Monday - there are twice as many concerns.

``I would feel better if Slava hadn't hurt himself,'' said coach Phil Jackson, who called the injury ``a very serious situation.''

Gary Payton is again brooding over playing time and was noticeably edgy after sitting out the entire fourth quarter Monday night.

Rick Fox briefly shed the medical tape wrapped around his dislocated thumb Tuesday, then shrieked as he absentmindedly tugged on his shorts. He is 0 for 5 in the series.

And while Bryant continues to thrill fans with his acrobatics, he is shooting .333 from the field and - unable to let go of his anger after last week's controversy - is boycotting the press.

Jackson has given Bryant more freedom than ever to dictate the offense's direction but noted a number of forced shots in Game 2 and said, ``That's always going to be a question mark as to what's the limit.''

The Lakers probably are too talented to lose four of the next five games to the Rockets, but it's not clear if they can push aside all the injuries and anger to gather the focus required for a series - without home-court advantage - against the Spurs.

``We've said to this team that we have to improve as a basketball team as you go through the playoffs,'' Jackson said. ``Detroit and perhaps the Spurs reached the playoffs playing a really high level. We didn't. We had a miserable two weeks coming into the playoffs.''

Howard Beck, (818) 713-3613

howard.beck(at)dailynews.com

GAME 3

Friday at Houston, 6:30 p.m.

TV: Ch. 9 & ESPN

Radio: 570-AM, 1330-AM (Spanish)

CAPTION(S):

photo, box

Photo:

(color) Kobe Bryant is thrilling fans with his acrobatics this series, but he's also shooting 33 percent from the field.

Phil McCarten/Staff Photographer

Box:

GAME 3 (see text)
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 21, 2004
Words:763
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