On getaway night, the conclusion of their five-game trip, the Lakers probably got away with one, thankful the Minnesota Timberwolves were on the other bench.
But because every victory these days is a keeper, backing into the 96-92 victory Saturday before 18,534 at the Target Center is put in perspective. It could have been better. Then again, it could have been a loss.
The Lakers, sparked by Vlade Divac's 20 points and 12 rebounds, salvaged the trip with back-to-back victories after opening 0-3. Better still, they have only one game the next six days--and that is against Dallas, which should provide an opportunity for some fine tuning, or at least some defining.
The fine tuning is for end-of-game situations. Eight days after blowing a five-point lead with 24.3 seconds left against Chicago, and one night after losing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead against Indiana before holding on, the Lakers walked the tightrope again.
This time, the Lakers were up by 14, 93-79, with 2:28 remaining after James Worthy's three-point shot seemingly put the game away. But after Chuck Person had three-point bombs on consecutive possessions, the last with 43 seconds to go, Minnesota trailed only 95-92.
After a Laker miss, the Timberwolves called timeout with 20 seconds left, then went for the tie. But Christian Laettner's three-pointer under pressure from Elden Campbell was an airball.
Minnesota came close to getting another opportunity when, after a Laker timeout, Worthy could not find an open man to get the ball into from halfcourt. So he threw the pass hard off Person's leg, so hard that it rolled all the way back beyond the baseline with five seconds remaining. When Brian Davis committed a foul on the next inbounds play, Campbell made one of the free throws for the final four-point margin.
"We played good and aggressive and I thought it was a nice game and a nice effort, and then we got in a protecting mode," Coach Randy Pfund said after the Lakers went the final 2:27 without a field goal. "I liken it to football, when a team totally has the passing game stifled and then in the last minute goes into a prevent defense. Then the other team completes five straight passes. We went into a prevent offense late in in the game and did not attack the basket."
Said Worthy, who contributed 17 points: "That's where we have to learn to finish the game."
They also have to define the roles in their youth movement.
Friday against the Pacers, Worthy got as many minutes (27) as the starter at small forward, Doug Christie. Sedale Threatt had 29 minutes off the bench, and the developing backcourt of Nick Van Exel and Anthony Peeler went 26 and 33, respectively.
Saturday against the Timberwolves, Worthy was a factor down the stretch, getting nine of his points in the fourth quarter. He finished with 31 minutes, eight more than Christie. Threatt's 29 were two more than Van Exel.
It puts Pfund in a tough spot: Give the young players big minutes--Van Exel is still averaging a team-high 35.3--and sacrifice some production, or win a few more games.
"We're always going for the victory, no question about that," Pfund said after the Lakers improved to 5-9. "Young is involved from the standpoint that there are some people we think will make us a better team down the road. I think it's a good blend. Maybe we have been a little veteran heavy the last two nights."
That they were also win heavy makes it a little easier.
Elden Campbell had five blocked shots, giving him 24 in the eight games since coming off the injured list. . . . Christian Laettner led the Timberwolves with 23 points, despite making nine of 25 shots.