These infrequent, neighborly get-togethers between the Lakers and Clippers had been getting pretty stale and predictable, especially when the teams played at the Forum.
What was needed Tuesday night was a little incentive and intrigue. Don Casey, the creative Clipper coach, provided the incentive by giving his team the written commandment that "Thou Shalt Beat the Lakers at The Forum," referring to the Lakers' 23-game, eight-year home winning streak over the Clippers.
And the intrigue, it turned out, was whether the Lakers could maintain their dominance without injured guard Byron Scott, who missed the second half because of a sprained left wrist, and with very little motivation to hold a 13-point lead.
In the end, however, predictability won out once more. The Lakers, though forced to work much harder than in seasons past, pulled out a 111-103 victory over the Clippers before a season-low Forum crowd of 16,035.
This much was clear, though: The Laker-Clipper rivalry, heretofore one of only proximity, has entered a competitive phase.
"They are 100-percent improved," Magic Johnson said.
"They've got a lot of firepower now."
But as long as Johnson and James Worthy are around, the Clippers' victory drought in Inglewood probably will continue when the teams play again at the Forum in March.
Johnson, playing primarily forward in the second half because of Scott's absence, scored a season-high 34 points and had 10 assists, including two baskets and a free throw in the final two minutes. Worthy added 18 points, including a free throw and basket that gave the Lakers a five-point lead with 44 seconds to play.
After that, the inspired Clippers had to scramble for quick points and quick fouls. They chose to foul Laker forward A.C. Green, a 72% free-throw shooter. Green, who won two games last season with late free throws, sank six consecutive free throws in a 15-second span to clinch it.
"That's a nice young team," Laker Coach Pat Riley said of the Clippers. "You got to forget about the past with them. A couple of years ago, you give them one right cross, and that would be it."
This time, though, the Clippers endured a potential first-half knockout blow and almost delivered one of their own to the Lakers in the second half.
Led by Ron Harper with 26 points and Ken Norman, who added 22 despite playing with tendinitis in his right knee, the Clippers overcame a 13-point halftime deficit and held a three-point lead with 5:18 to play.
But the 13-3 Lakers, a good veteran team, pulled away from the 5-10 Clippers, an improved young team, by going with their marquee players when it counted.
The Clippers failed to convert on several critical possessions in the frantic final minute. Danny Manning, who had 16 points in his fourth game back, missed a free throw with 1:06 to play that would have pulled the Clippers to within two points. Manning missed another with 26 seconds left, then Harper committed back-to-back turnovers.
Free-throws haunted the Clippers all night. They made 15 of 28 attempts, and also had 25 turnovers.
"We showed we could (win) on their home court," said Norman, who made nine of 14 shots. "We make our foul shots, we win."
Casey also was pleased with the Clippers' play, if not with the outcome.
"The kids made a hell of a comeback," he said. "This is a stage they are going through. There wasn't much else we could've done, except knock down a couple more shots."
The Lakers' third-quarter funk, a recurring problem, was only partly due to Scott's absence. Scott was out the entire second half after suffering a sprained left wrist 1 minute 50 seconds after the opening tipoff.
Scott scored 11 first-half points, but the wrist stiffened at halftime, and Scott was sent to Centinela Hospital Medical Center for X-rays that showed no fracture.
Without Scott, the Lakers became primarily a half-court offensive team. In Riley's words, the Lakers "came out flat as a drum" in the third quarter. They made 25% of their shots, their lowest total for a quarter this season.
Their 13-point halftime lead did not last long. A 16-2 run in the first 4:06 of the third quarter enabled the Clippers to take a 59-58 lead.
After sustaining that initial Clipper blow, the Lakers recovered. Sort of.
Four minutes later, they reclaimed the lead and even built it to as many as three points. But by the end of a third quarter, during which the Clippers made 61% of their shots to the Lakers' 25%, the Clippers used the scoring of Norman and Harper to take a 73-71 lead.
"If you've followed the Lakers for the last 10 years, you know we're notorious for our (poor) third-quarter starts," Michael Cooper said. "We always come out slow for some reason."
The Clippers were part of the reason. The Lakers acknowledge that. But Johnson and others say the Laker offense can become stagnant without Scott.
"We were trying to go without Byron, and they were doubling me and James," Johnson said. "We were just sloppy in the third quarter. We went to a three-guard attack with me at (small forward)." That lineup worked in the fourth quarter. Cooper, who started the second half in Scott's place, sank two three-point shots in a span of 1:08. And Johnson finally broke free by posting low and then driving to the basket. Add six consecutive free throws by Green, and another Laker victory over the Clippers was secured.
But the Clippers, if nothing else, issued a warning that they will no longer go quietly.
"Like Coach (Casey) said, this was the toughest we've played this team in this building since he's been here," Harper said. "That's got to tell you something. This team is on the verge of really making something happen."
Openly, at least, the Lakers did not react strongly to Don Casey's statement that his team must beat the Lakers at the Forum. A newspaper clipping of the goal was underlined on a bulletin board. "I guess you have to set some goals," Michael Cooper said before the game. "Why not set ones you feel are easy to get? I mean, anyone can beat anyone in this league. Boston used to have a thing against us, and we ended that."
Laker Coach Pat Riley said forward Orlando Woolridge, now participating in practice after Oct. 17 arthroscopic surgery to remove bone fragments from his right knee, is about two weeks away from being activated. Riley, however, said Woolridge will accompany the Lakers on an upcoming eight-game Eastern trip, so he can work out with the team. "I still think 'O' is far away from a conditioning aspect," Riley said. "He needs another week or 10 days of practice. Plus, he still has a little discomfort. Until I see enough from him in practice, we won't rush him." Riley said one reason Woolridge will not be rushed is that he is satisfied with an effective substitution rotation that includes center Vlade Divac, Michael Cooper at forward and point guard Larry Drew. "It's going to put a squeeze on some minutes when 'O' comes back," Riley said. "Guys are settled. But we need (Woolridge) because he creates things offensively when he gets the ball. We needed that the other night against Detroit."
Drew, who last played in the NBA for the Clippers during the 1987-88 season, on playing against his former team: "Just another game. I mean, so many guys are gone since I played there. I think only three are left--Ben (Benoit Benjamin), Joe Wolf and Ken Norman."
It also was a homecoming of sorts for David Rivers, the Clippers' reserve point guard, who played sparingly for the Lakers last season as a rookie. . . . The last time the teams played, last April 15, the Clippers beat the Lakers, 119-107, at the Sports Arena. Benjamin scored 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.