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Los Angeles Lakers phenom Kobe Bryant collects the rebound and dribbles up the court. When he reaches the front court, he passes the ball to the mammoth superstar Shaquille O’Neal. Each of the five Lakers teammates are carefully positioned on the court, three in the form of a triangle and two at strategic locations on the flank. O’Neal sends a crisp pass to a player on his right, who directs the ball back to Bryant. Another pass, then a player from the far wing makes a precise cut through the lane. A final pass finds a Laker wide open for a 10-foot jump shot: an easy score.

What a contrast from last season’s disappointing team, which self-destructed in a humiliating playoff defeat. The 1998 Lakers were talented and flashy — thunderous dunks, spectacular blocked shots, beautifully arched three-point shots — but self-centered and acrimonious. This year’s Lakers pass the ball around before attempting a shot, coordinate carefully on defense, and are friends off the court.

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