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It's Closer, but Still No Cigar for Lakers

Pro basketball: L.A. puts up a fight this time before losing to Trail Blazers, 88-82.


PORTLAND, Ore. — The Lakers dragged to the finish line, after 2 1/2 more hours of humility, and claimed another quiet step up the ladder here Wednesday.

A moral victory, you could say.

Of course, if the Lakers keep piling up and quietly claiming moral victories in losses against top teams since the release of Dennis Rodman, all those wins with Rodman will need a new label:

Immoral victories.

Eight days after suffering a 27-point loss here in Rodman's final Laker game, all the Lakers did Wednesday was lose--fighting hard, landing good punches, but also wearying and wobbling at the end, as the Portland Trail Blazers pulled out an 88-82 victory at the Rose Garden.

"All we're looking for is improvement," Laker Coach Kurt Rambis said, "and we improved. All we're looking for is consistent improvement.

"We definitely played better. They didn't get nearly as many transition baskets this time. We didn't play a particularly good game, but we showed signs."

No blowout. No embarrassment. Nobody refused to reenter the game, no eruptions of emotion.

Only a defeat to a more rested but definitely better team, which dropped the Lakers to 27-17, 5 1/2 games behind Pacific Division-leading Portland (31-10) with six games to play.

It was the Lakers' third game in three cities and three nights, after Portland's game in Denver on Tuesday was postponed because of the high school shootings there.

"I think we showed some signs definitely of fatigue," Rambis said. "It was our fourth game in five nights. But I think the guys played hard. The turnovers just hurt us--particularly early."

The Lakers showed tired legs--making only 40% of their field-goal tries--and turned the ball over 14 times, including six by Kobe Bryant.

"They're a good team," said Shaquille O'Neal, who had 25 points and 13 rebounds--both game highs. "But I think we can get them--I know we can get them. And we're going to have the chance."

While getting rocked on the boards and trailing for the entire game--though to a lesser degree than the previous matchup--the Lakers closed within two points, 78-76, with less than four minutes left.

Derek Fisher made two three-pointers, and O'Neal scored three quick inside baskets, to key the Lakers' 12-3 run.

Then the Laker offense frayed, and Damon Stoudamire and the Portland big men took control of the game again, scoring on all but one of their final seven possessions.

Bryant, the hero of the previous night's huge comeback over the Warriors, scored 12 of his 22 points in the second half, but also put up a couple of quick shots at the end that did not go in, including an airball on a three-point try.

"We've just got to be smarter," O'Neal said. "We are improving, but down the stretch we took a couple of bad shots, shooting it with two people guarding you."

The Trail Blazers outrebounded the Lakers, 49-32, led by Arvydas Sabonis' 11 and Rasheed Wallace's nine. Wallace also led Portland with 21 points.

"We've got to take better care of the ball," Laker forward J.R. Reid said. "It doesn't matter that we lost by fewer points this time. We shouldn't have lost by 27 last time.

"We had our chances to win this game, and we just didn't."

Overall, Laker forward Glen Rice made only four of his 14 shots, and was two of seven from three-point distance, finishing with 10 points.

"We did a good job on Glen Rice," Portland forward Brian Grant said. "He had a few open ones, but he didn't get that many shots in the second half."

The Lakers once again had to go without backup forward Rick Fox (sore knee) and point guard Derek Harper (sore foot).



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