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A DOOR OPENS WIDE; LAKERS TRIP WALKING IN : PHOENIX 114, LAKERS 105.

Byline: Howard Beck Daily News Staff Writer

The San Antonio Spurs were kind enough Friday evening to serve up a lob ball, slow-pitch softball-style, to the Lakers. The Spurs' earlier defeat of the West-leading Sonics gave the Lakers a nice, big, fat opportunity to swing for the fences and cut in half Seattle's lead.

And the Lakers whiffed.

Antonio McDyess' career-high 37 points sparked the Suns' 114-105 victory over the Lakers at the Forum, ruining the Lakers' probable last chance to advance on the Sonics in the Pacific Division standings and Western Conference playoff seedings race.

The Lakers shot just 40 percent in the loss, which ended their six-game winning streak and stopped their season-high home winning streak at 10 games.

As much as the game had postseason implications, for Mario Bennett business was personal.

Bennett had plenty to smile about early on, his third start of the season coming against the team that drafted him in 1995 but gave up on him after one injury-marred year.

And Bennett was certainly in a smiling mood after opening with nine points in the first quarter, pushing it to 11 by halftime. He finished with a career-high 14 rebounds to go with 18 points.

Seems the only thing to inhibit Bennett's wide grin, other than the loss, was the mouthpiece he wore to protect his surgically repaired pearly whites. Bennett spent Thursday afternoon in the dentist's chair, having a temporary false tooth installed and getting a patchup job on a cracked tooth, all courtesy of a Michael Williams elbow in Wednesday's game with Vancouver.

Taking no chances, Bennett has gone to the mouth guard look, a la Charles Barkley - ``forever,'' Bennett said. ``It kind of scared me. When I did go back out there, I was kind of scared to get in the mix.''

Bennett didn't let the incident affect him Friday, as he started his third game in place of the injured Robert Horry. Enjoying the spotlight, fractured smile or no, he stepped to the foul line in the third quarter and started his raise-the-roof exercises, the crowd joining in.

By the time he checked out with 3:34 left in the third, Bennett already had his double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds.

The Suns were missing their best bench player - losing Danny Manning for the rest of the season to a knee injury earlier this week. Manning had started five games recently but has mostly accumulated his 13.5 points per game in relief.

Lakers coach Del Harris said Phoenix would be no less dangerous without one of the league's top sixth men.

``He's an outstanding player, but he is a reserve. It's not like all is lost for (Phoenix),'' Harris said. ``He averages 25 minutes a game. He's a bench player, and a very good bench player, but anybody that thinks Phoenix now becomes easy pickings hasn't been watching. You've got the starting lineup intact, all of whom can score 30 points a game.''

``There's no question they have the deepest team in the league, so when they lose a guy it hurts, but it will not devastate them.''

One of the Lakers' better first quarters was tarnished by a lousy second quarter, and they ended up trailing at halftime 56-51.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

PHOTO (Color) The Lakers' Derek Fisher dives for the ball in front of Phoenix's Jason Kidd.

Evan Yee/Daily News
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 11, 1998
Words:566
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