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Timberwolves Almost Sneak Up on Lakers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The big-enough game came Friday, secondary in marquee value to what comes Sunday but hardly too far down in importance for the Lakers, losers of two in a row and one big lead in this one.

So to not merely beat the Minnesota Timberwolves, 121-114, before a capacity 17,505 at the Great Western Forum, but to win with a big fourth quarter after blowing a 17-point halftime lead made it all the better.

The timing wasn’t bad, either.

It came one game after the Lakers had a miserable showing against the New Jersey Nets, two after losing the showdown at Seattle. And one before the Big Game, the meeting with the Chicago Bulls on Sunday.

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“It’s a big win for us,” Coach Del Harris said after his team played without starters Nick Van Exel and Robert Horry and lost the big advantage but did not lose their composure down the stretch.

With the Lakers trailing, 105-104, Kobe Bryant made a reverse layup and Eddie Jones made a three-point basket to give them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

“Our guys were ready to play tonight,” Harris said. “I don’t think they were down [from the last game] tonight. I was, but I don’t think they were.”

Added Rick Fox, who broke out an offensive slump to score a team-high 30 points: “The loss to Seattle and New Jersey, combined with knowing this team [the Timberwolves] had a hot streak. And playing Chicago on Sunday, and then Portland. That’s a potential disaster.”

An averted one, as it turned out.

The decision to keep Van Exel and Horry out came even as Horry said he felt better Friday, the Lakers taking no chances with one injury they know all too well can be delicate (the abdominal strain) and the player (Van Exel) who had enough health concerns even before this. That put Derek Fisher--not Bryant--and Elden Campbell in the starting lineup.

So it wasn’t about holding both out for the Bulls. Not considering the Lakers needed all the size they could throw at the Timberwolves, a tough matchup for most clubs while going 7-0, 6-10 and 6-11 across the front line. And especially not considering the opposing point guard was Stephon Marbury, who long ago had proved his talents, but, as of the start of the week, felt like he had something to prove.

Getting left off the all-star team will do that to a guy. So he threw down the gauntlet at Western Conference coaches, those who were responsible for not sending him to New York as a reserve, and then got the chance to face down the people who cost him more than any vote. He got to go against the Lakers, who are sending three guards, thereby likely costing Marbury the chance to play Feb. 8 in his hometown.

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“I’ve got a little extra juice for the [rest of the] season,” he said. “At the end of the season, they’re all gonna know. They’re all gonna be apologizing.”

So went the Grudge Tour. Marbury started by getting 21 points and eight assists Tuesday against the Hawks, no doubt just in case Atlanta’s Lenny Wilkens, an Eastern Conference coach, once dreamed of passing Marbury over for something. That was followed Thursday by 31 points, nine assists and four steals at Vancouver, putting him on a run of 20.4 points, 7.8 assists, 49.4% overall and 46.4% on three-pointers in the 10 games before Friday.

The Lakers didn’t get off any easier. Marbury scored 21 of his 35 points in third quarter, leading the Timberwolves back from a 17-point halftime deficit to make it an 88-88 game heading into the fourth, the tie coming when he made a high-arcing 10-footer from the right side over Campbell at the buzzer.

If Marbury had a regret, figure it’s that the explosion didn’t come at the expense of Van Exel.

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