Shaq is back

Nov 26, 2002 6:43 AM

   It took a month, but the NBA season is back to normal. Shaquille O’Neal has returned to the Los Angeles Lakers.

   O’Neal’s first two appearances resulted in wins. Shaq showed some rust as he works himself back into game shape, but the Lakers needed his return to reverse what had been a 3-9 start and flirtation with the cellar in the Pacific Division.

   Dallas remained the only unbeaten team (13-0) at the start of the week. The other zero that appeared in last Monday’s standings disappeared on Saturday when Memphis won its first game to give Hubie Brown his first coaching win in more than 15 years. The Grizzlies actually have some decent young talent on their roster and will be worth watching as heavy underdogs, especially in favorable scheduling situations.

   Despite all the attention Memphis and the Lakers have received for their poor starts, there are three other NBA teams with just two wins this season. Miami and New York are both 2-10 while Cleveland is 2-12. None of the three teams were expected to contend for the playoffs but the woeful early performance of the two Atlantic Division rivals, especially Miami, is surprising on many levels.

   Miami coach Pat Riley remains under criticism from fans as the legend he created with the Lakers and Knicks has been virtually invisible with the Heat. Miami has been hurt by the illness of center Alonzo Mourning, but Riley’s personnel decisions have been questioned by many over the past couple of seasons.

   The current Knicks seem to be clearly suffering from weak coaching. Despite all the injuries, New York has still had leads in most of the fourth quarters. Solid coaching should have created matchups and strategies resulting in at least half of those leads turning into wins. But that has not been the case.

   The injuries will only lead to fatigue as the season wears on and the Knicks may remain a go against team for most of the season.

   Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

   T’wolves at Jazz (Friday): Utah has evened its record after a slow start as age has taken a toll on Karl Malone and John Stockton. Both can still be effective in spurts but cannot be counted for consistent performances on a game-to-game basis. Minnesota has contended with injuries and only a half game better than the Jazz. Utah has an extra day of rest and plays Saturday in San Antonio. This figures to be the more winnable game, which should mean a better Jazz effort than against the Spurs. The play is on UTAH (-3).

   Nets at Blazers (Saturday): New Jersey is showing that last season’s Eastern Conference championship was no fluke. Byron Scott continues to enhance his reputation as a coach and Jason Kidd remains the focus of the offense. Richard Jefferson is developing as a solid complement to Kenyon Martin and the Nets appear to again be the team to beat in the East. Portland is again dealing with offcourt distractions, most recently with the marijuana arrest of Rasheed Wallace and Damon Stoudamire. There are also chemistry problems on the Blazers. NEW JERSEY (+3).

   Hornets at Celtics (Sunday): The Hornets have prospered from their move to New Orleans from Charlotte and could be the leading challengers to New Jersey in the East. They were a solid road team last season but suffered from apathy in Charlotte. The Hornets opened this season winning their first eight home games. Boston is also enjoying a good start, playing well both at home and on the road. Both teams are capable of running the court, but not outstanding in the middle. OVER (192).