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THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : No Misunderstanding This Night

Kids.

Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t win without ‘em. Can’t kill ‘em.

Laker Coach Del Harris had one of those little family spats with his 23-year-old point guard, Nick Van Exel. The Lakers could have docked little Nicky’s allowance $23,456.79 but decided to let it go as A Horrible Misunderstanding.

Gratefully, Nicky went out and played an inspirational 35-point, seven-assist game Wednesday night, leading the Lakers from behind twice against the Suns, who, unfortunately for them, pulled away a third time and won, 118-108.

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Van Exel made seven of 11 three-point attempts and in a sensational run, dropped three three-pointers on the Suns in the last 1:02 of the third quarter. If he promises to play that well every time there’s a problem, Harris will let him sit out any second half he feels like.

“I thought they should have suspended him,” said Sun Coach Paul Westphal, laughing.

“I thought he was sensational. Guy was making unbelievable shots and he kept making them. If he can make shots like those, I’ll shake his hand.”

Of course, there’s a little more to the Portland story than the Lakers have actually admitted.

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Laker insiders say the problem started at halftime of the Lakers’ game Monday. In the course of discussing strategy for the second half, Harris and Van Exel had a disagreement that turned heated. An angry Harris then turned over a table--splashing assistant coach Bill Bertka.

Only then did the players go back on the floor, where the famous misunderstanding happened: Van Exel seeing five other players on the floor, concluding he had been benched--even after an assistant coach told him he was supposed to be out there--and sat himself down for the rest of the night.

Bottom line: Someone in authority told Van Exel to play. He didn’t.

By all the rules that governed the Lakers in the ‘80s, Van Exel would have been suspended for a game--$23,456.79 worth of his $1.9-million salary--before he got the frown off his face. Had Van Exel done it on a Pat Riley team, he might have been chained to the bench for a month. Had he done it on a Magic Johnson team, he’d have had 6-9 and 235 pounds in his face.

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Things are different now. Johnson is a minority owner, Van Exel is a bright, young hope. It’s the ‘90s.

Harris, who had the say, reportedly told Jerry West he didn’t want Van Exel suspended, figuring a national embarrassment (and perhaps a fine the team didn’t announce) would suffice. On ESPN, Van Exel was already known as Van Exit.

Johnson walked up to the prodigal point guard before the game, hugged him, murmured a few words in his ear.

“I just told him to go out and play,” said Johnson. “Be Nick. This thing’s over. Just go out and play.”

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OK, he did.

Van Exel’s first shot was a three-pointer. It went in.

He made his first three shots, two of them three pointers. He had 11 points in the first quarter and scored 13 in the last 4:08 of the third quarter, including the three three-pointers the last 1:02.

Barkley, walking past him on the floor, patted Van Exel’s rear end, as if in salute.

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“He was sensational,” said Barkley. “I told him, ‘Don’t get tired now, little fella, this is where it gets fun. Chuckster time!’ ”

It was at that, but it was Nicky time, too.

Like they said, must have been just a misunderstanding.


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