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Lakers Get Defensive About Play

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bandwagon fills anew. Or, did you say something, Del?

“When you’re winning, you feel good,” Eddie Jones noted. “You’re joking around, laughing. Not listening to your coach.”

Pause.

“I’m kidding.”

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The Lakers’ recent slump has given way to a three-game winning streak, all on the road and all with impressive showings on defense, the 104-91 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night before 20,197 at Target Center as the latest example, a showing that also included 35 points from Shaquille O’Neal.

Of course, they’re also the first to admit that beating the Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks doesn’t make up for losing to Seattle, Houston and Phoenix, though Wednesday’s victory at Indiana was definitely a keeper. But given the emotional state as recently as Sunday in Orlando after the fourth loss in five games, all important defeats in the standings or in the psyche, the events of late means it’s OK again to bring out the knives at dinner.

Oh, and the Lakers are doing well too.

“I think everybody around us panicked too much,” Kobe Bryant said.

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They panicked because the Lakers were losing games, losing starting point guards, losing contact with the SuperSonics and losing second place in the Pacific Division.

“You lose a couple games by a couple points,” Bryant said, “and everybody starts wondering what’s wrong with L.A.”

It wasn’t only the part about a couple of points, though. The defeat against Seattle two weeks ago meant the SuperSonics were able to put some distance on the Lakers in the race for the top record in the division, the conference and the league. The defeat against Houston two days later came when Charles Barkley made a tough shot with 3.6 seconds left. The defeat against Orlando, after the Lakers trashed Denver, came when Nick Anderson made a tough shot with 7.1 seconds left in a game the Lakers wanted to win for O’Neal.

So it was with a fractured heart they trudged north to Milwaukee. The win there Tuesday helped, especially because the Bucks had been playing well and then were held to 81 points and 37.6% shooting. The victory over the Pacers offered still more encouragement, given the quality of the opponent and the fact that the Lakers were on the second night of a back-to-back and still stopped Indiana at 89 points and 36%.

Friday, trying to become the first Laker club in the Los Angeles era to hold three consecutive teams to less than 90 points, they made a serious run at the record by holding the Timberwolves to 17 in the fourth quarter but barely missed.

The next game on Sunday in New York brings the chance for redemption--the Knicks have broken triple digits once in the last six outings and only twice in 12 contests.

It came as the Timberwolves shot 36.9%, so the defensive stand continued in that regard, the last three having all been held under 40%. The Minnesota guards--Terry Porter, Stephon Marbury and Anthony Peeler--were a combined 11 of 37. This, a game after another guard, Reggie Miller, went four of 17.

Problems?

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What problems?

“That was tough,” Coach Del Harris said of the skid. “Very disheartening. We played well at Orlando, in a game in which the crowd was so vital, where we fought our way back and thought we had a win before it was taken away on a fade-away three-point shot. That was really gut-wrenching for our guys. It’s even more credit to our guys to bounce back and win three in a row.

“It wasn’t an easy comeback. That may help our young team to grow. . . . It could be the best thing to happen to us, losing two or three of those tight ballgames.

“Our team made a commitment. I hope I’m not speaking too soon or out of school, and I know I’m speaking out of hope, but I think it’s the first time we’ve made an all-out commitment to defense. And if we’re going to go anywhere, you have to make that commitment to defense.”

He’s right . . . whoever it was who said that.


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