The Washington Wizards' entire front court scored 16 fewer points than Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, and as a result, Washington fell, 91-80, tonight before 15,571 at Staples Center.
O'Neal scored a game-high 30 points and grabbed 16 of his team's 44 rebounds as the Lakers won their seventh straight game. The Wizards lost their fifth straight, an unflattering mark seeing as they have a seven-game losing streak already to their credit this season.
Washington forward Juwan Howard scored just six points on 3-of-17 shooting. Forward Michael Smith added two points and center Ike Austin had six. Combined they were 7 of 30 from the field, and none of the three attempted a free throw.
"We just couldn't get anything from our starters in the front court," Wizards Coach Gar Heard said. "We can't win any games unless those guys score, and we had opportunities to score. But you're going to have games like that."
The failure of the front-court players to equalize O'Neal cost Washington the game, as did the fact that the Lakers made 25 of 38 foul shots compared with Washington's 13 of 20. Heard blamed some of that disparity on the officials.
"As usual, everybody seemed to get an assist from the officials except us," he said. "They shoot 38 free throws; we shoot 20. I don't mind losing the game, but at least give us a chance."
The Lakers, who have won 23 of the last 25 meetings between the teams in Los Angeles, took over first place in the Pacific Division, moving a half-game in front of Portland, which lost to Miami.
The Lakers outscored Washington 8-3 early in the fourth quarter to pull to their biggest lead at 70-59 early in the period. The 11-point deficit was too much to overcome, even though the Wizards got as close as 79-73 after guard Rod Strickland's layup. A 20-foot jump shot by Lakers forward Glen Rice with 57 seconds left sealed Los Angeles's victory. The loss drops Washington to 5-15. Guard Mitch Richmond led the Wizards with 23 points. Strickland had 15 points and 10 assists. Forward Tracy Murray had 13 points off the bench.
"We came in and played a tough team and couldn't get the win," Strickland said. "That's all it was. We played pretty decent. We had a chance to win the game."
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant had 21 points in a reserve role. Backup forward Rick Fox had 15. Though rule changes were implemented this season to increase scoring, the game was plagued by the dormant offenses that spurred the new rules.
The Lakers led 58-53 entering the fourth period after the teams combined for just 30 points in the third period. The pace was well-suited to the Wizards, who prevented Los Angeles from putting together an extended offensive surge.
The Lakers led by seven twice in the period. On the first occasion, Washington, down 49-42, answered with a 6-0 run. Just moments later, the Lakers scored six unanswered points, concluding with a short jump shot by forward A.C. Green that made the score 57-50. Wizards guard Chris Whitney trimmed the deficit to four with a three-pointer before Lakers guard Derek Fisher ended the quarter making one of two free throws.
The Wizards stared down the Lakers in the first half and nearly matched them point for point and rebound for rebound. Los Angeles led 41-40 at halftime but clearly did not have momentum.
Washington trailed 36-26 after the Lakers opened the second quarter by outscoring the Wizards 11-4. Washington slowly chipped into the lead, countering with a 6-2 spurt capped by a 16-foot jump shot by center Gerard King. Los Angeles extended its lead to 37-31, but Richmond brought the Wizards to 38-37 by scoring all of Washington's points in a 6-1 surge.
Fox and Washington forward Tracy Murray exchanged three-pointers to end the half. As the score indicated, both teams struggled. The Wizards shot just 34.7 percent; Los Angeles made 44 percent.
Before the game, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said it was crucial for his team to jump out to quick leads against teams .500 or below. He said he did not know whether the Lakers had developed the killer instinct needed to maintain their recent run of success.
Over the first two quarters, Washington was the aggressor, even though Los Angeles registered 10 blocked shots. The Wizards outrebounded the Lakers 26-25 and held their starting back court of Fisher and Ron Harper to three points. Bryant had five points, but he seemed limited by the soft brace covering the right hand he broke against Washington in a preseason game.
Washington's back court of Strickland and Richmond combined for 18 points, with Richmond scoring 13. Murray was effective off the bench, scoring seven second-quarter points, including a three-point jumper off an inbounds play at the end of the first half.
Backup centers Jahidi White and King fared well against O'Neal, not allowing him to dominate offensively. O'Neal had 10 first-half points but only four in the second quarter, when King guarded him for five minutes.
Washington and Los Angeles scrapped to a 19-19 first-quarter tie. White's tip-in capped a 6-0 period-ending run by the Wizards. The late basket was one of the rare times Washington has scored to end a quarter this season.
Keying Washington's success was the burly White, who denied O'Neal deep position near the basket. Before White entered the game with four minutes left in the period, O'Neal had much more success against Austin, scoring six points.
White did not last long, though. He picked up his second foul less than a minute into the second quarter, causing Heard to re-insert Austin.
After Howard's hook shot gave the Wizards an 11-8 lead midway through the first period, Los Angeles scored six unanswered points, four by O'Neal on a dunk and a layup. The Lakers built the lead to 19-13 after Rice scored on a short jumper but Washington countered with its quarter-ending spurt.