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LAKERS NOTEBOOK: FOX: LAKERS TALE OF TWO TEAMS.

Byline: Howard Beck Staff Writer

There is losing as participant and there is losing as spectator, and the different vantage points lead to inevitably divergent conclusions. The Lakers suffered through a 2-4 slump and mumbled about defensive breakdowns and shot selection before righting themselves in Sunday's rout of the Boston Celtics.

Rick Fox, for now just a well-dressed innocent bystander, has sensed a more fundamental, and familiar, malady.

``I think I'm noticing that we've become two different teams,'' said Fox, a seven-year veteran of the Lakers' split-personality disorder. ``The team that I was watching that got off to an 18-3 start, we were conscious at both ends of the floor. We were getting a lot more baskets in transition. I thought also we were on the brink of instilling hopelessness in a lot of the teams that we would face.''

Hopelessness nearly engulfed the league after the Lakers rolled San Antonio, Indiana, San Antonio again and Dallas from Nov. 28 to Dec. 4. What followed instead was the Lakers' sudden decline.

They trudged through unimpressive victories over Utah and New York, then hit their 2-4 skid.

``It was once again the old adage of boredom versus being challenged,'' said Fox, who is recovering from foot surgery. ``When you don't feel challenged, you kind of fall into the realm of boredom. And I don't know if that stretch of games where we dominated everybody led to a sense of invincibility or gave us a false sense of security about ourselves, because we kind of slid into a malaise where we just thought we'd show up and play the games and people would be afraid of us and we'd end up beating them.

``No team that's ever won a championship has ever been handed the championship, and no team that's won a championship hasn't gone though these types of learning curves,'' Fox said. ``So right now, we're learning that we're a good team, but we can also be a bad team when some things go by the wayside.''

The arrival of Karl Malone and Gary Payton seemed to instill the Lakers with a fresh energy and a harder edge, and an understanding that regular-season games merit some attention. It lasted about six weeks.

Harmony and success often undermine this team's focus, which is why in late October Fox semi-seriously welcomed the nasty verbal spat between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.

``(During) that early push to start the season, it was pretty testy around here,'' Fox said. ``Everybody was on edge, and everybody was taking care of their own business and coming to play and having to prove themselves and working hard. And as soon as it became Camp Fun-Joy, Camp Pat-You-on-the-Back, you see what happens. So once again, we're a team and this is an environment that individuals, as well as the team collectively, has to feel like it has something to prove or it has to feel challenged, or we slide off into a winter nap.''

Three weeks of bad basketball, an injury to Malone and a more demanding schedule should be enough to get everyone's attention. Fox, revisiting his old theme, said they might need something more.

``It will be another blowup sooner or later, and it will be healthy,'' he said. ``It won't be perceived healthy, but it will be healthy.''

--Also: As compensation for playing on Christmas, coach Phil Jackson gave his players the day off Monday. They will resume practice today in El Segundo. They don't play again until Friday in Seattle. ... The Lakers will don the blue throwback jerseys twice more this season, for a road game at Philadelphia on Feb. 5 and a home game against the 76ers on Feb. 20. They are 1-1 when wearing the uniforms from 1965-66.

Howard Beck, (818) 713-3607

howard.beck(at)dailynews.com
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 30, 2003
Words:634
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