Lakers Are Forced Into Late Run : Pro basketball: Team talks better game than it plays in win over Clippers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Lakers stared into the abyss and, rather than panic, scoffed. Or at least that's what they insisted later, once the coast was clear.

They even showed a swagger. Such an emotion came out of nowhere, like the Lakers themselves. For nearly 3 1/2 quarters, they showed no pulse. Then, they recovered.

It was not miraculous, but it was enough, a 23-4 rally over six minutes and 10 seconds of the fourth period that led to a 96-88 victory over the pesky Clippers in a Monday matinee before 11,326 at the Forum.

"I knew it would slip away from them," Laker Nick Van Exel said after his game-high 24 points, which included five three-pointers. "I was confident. My teammates were confident."

Why?

"It's the Clippers, man," Van Exel said. "They don't have the (guts) like we do. You've got to be able to fight down to the end."

Maybe the Lakers should have seen this coming. If not, they haven't been paying attention--it took another fourth-quarter comeback to win at the Sports Arena in November and the first Forum meeting resulted in an easy Clipper victory.

Deep into the second half Monday, the Lakers were back on their heels again and about to go horizontal. A few days after proclaiming all was right again after consecutive double-digit losses, to Portland and Phoenix, their deficit against the worst team in the league was 15 with three minutes left in the third quarter.

Making matters worse was the fact that they had scored only 50 points. With 9:25 remaining in the game, the deficit was 12, 77-65.

That's when the Lakers joined the party.

Tony Smith drove the right side for a layup and Eddie Jones followed with a three-point basket. Suddenly, it was a seven-point game. The Clippers' Loy Vaught scored inside, two of his team-high 18 points, but the Lakers took control from there, starting with a three-point basket and a pair of free throws by Van Exel.

Then it was the Clippers who were teetering. Their cushion was down to 79-75, and that evaporated moments later, after bad passes by Tony Massenburg and Vaught on consecutive possessions led to Laker baskets, one a three-point play when Jones was fouled. That free throw, with 5:19 to go, gave the host team its first lead.

"It happened on the defensive end," Jones said. "Offensively, it wasn't there for us."

The Lakers didn't let up from there, in more ways than one. After pushing the the lead to 88-81 with 3:08 remaining, capping the 23-4 charge that included baskets by five players, the Clippers called a timeout, their second in about a minute and a half. Van Exel, heading back to his huddle, waved at the Clipper bench.

"I was just telling them, 'See you in a couple of weeks,' " he said. " 'Go back cross-town where you're from.' "

Like the Clippers needed that. Like it's not bad enough to lose for the sixth time in a row and 14th time in the last 17 games, blowing a big lead in the process.

They should be used to it by now.

"We have too many periods when we don't (maintain leads)," Coach Bill Fitch said. "But that's part of growing up, and it's painful. When they talk about growing pains, they weren't talking about those nice little kids who are 4 and 5. They're talking about basketball teams."

This kind of game will age a team. Or a coach.

"It's not how you start, it's how you finish,"' said Laker Coach Del Harris. "We're happy with the effort that unit had on the court the last 15 minutes.

"A lot of times, it's hard to pull yourself out of the ditch when you crash like we did. Fortunately, our guys were able to match the Clippers' energy."

Just in time.

Basketball Notes

Some Clippers talked afterward of being tired and falling victim to fatigue as much as they did to the Lakers after playing for the fifth time in seven days. Coach Bill Fitch responded: "If you go along and talk to anyone who's averaging 19 to 20 minutes a game and they've got tired legs, tell them to quit going to all the dances." He didn't get specific but circled the names of Terry Dehere and Malik Sealy on the stat sheet when talking. . . . The Lakers had 15 blocked shots, their high for 1994-95 and one shy of the best in the league this season. Vlade Divac led with five.

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