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LAKERS BREAK EVEN; LONG TRIP ENDS WITH HARD-EARNED WIN AND 3-3 RECORD : LAKERS 96, DALLAS 93.

Byline: Howard Beck Daily News Staff Writer

When at last the longest, most taxing road trip of the compact season came to its merciful conclusion Monday, it was clear the Lakers had endured something exhausting, something brutal.

You could see it in the breakaway dunk attempt Kobe Bryant clanged off the rim as the final buzzer sounded in a too-close 96-93 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. You could see it in the 10-point lead the Lakers nearly squandered in the final two minutes at Reunion Arena.

And afterward, the effects of six games in six cities in nine days seemed perfectly summed up in Shaquille O'Neal's postgame attire. His luggage and all his clothes having disappeared in Orlando, O'Neal concluded this trip wearing an ill-fitting Dallas Mavericks sweatsuit.

Yes, the Lakers come home having truly weathered something extraordinary, and feeling grateful to have pulled out a 3-3 record.

When the final buzzer sounded in Dallas, ending game, set and road trip, all Bryant could do was laugh about his failed pyrotechnics and hug the basket standard in a moment of relief.

``What'd we come out, .500 on this trip? Whatever. We'll take it,'' said Bryant, who scored 21 points.

The trip began with a loss and no Dennis Rodman and sunk to a 1-3 start before the Lakers rebounded in style with wins over the Magic and Mavericks.

``Nothing you can do about it,'' Bryant said. ``We would have loved to win them all, but that's not the case, so just roll with the punches. Good to come out with a win, though.''

It was a close call.

For the second straight game, the Lakers came out sluggish and surrendered a double-digit lead, as the Mavericks grabbed a 10-point advantage in the first quarter. And though the Lakers remedied that in the third quarter, they nearly let it all slip away in the closing minutes.

Glen Rice's 3-pointer gave the Lakers a 90-80 lead with 2:16 remaining. The win practically locked up, the Lakers' thoughts perhaps turned to visions of Southern California beaches and roller-blading women in thongs. They certainly weren't thinking much about Gary Trent, although that might be understandable.

Trent hit two jumpers and a layup in 18 seconds, and O'Neal missed 3 of 4 foul shots as the Mavericks sliced the lead to 91-88. Rick Fox hit 1 of 2 free throws, Bryant made 2 of 2 and Derek Fisher missed a pair of foul shots as the Mavs stayed within four points.

But when Michael Finley missed an open 3-pointer and Rice came up with the ball, then two free throws, the Lakers had survived their latest faux pas.

``The way we've played lately,'' Fox said, ``we first of all want to get the win, regardless of how pretty or how ugly it looks. And then from that point we can work on the aesthetics of the performance. But a win is a win.''

Such was the prevailing feeling. But the Lakers, who improved to 11-0 with Dennis Rodman playing, are used to less stressful meetings with the Mavs, who they've beaten 15 straight times.

``It's our fourth game in five nights. We're just kind of tired,'' O'Neal said. ``I think fatigue set in a little bit. However, we got a win. . . . We gotta get another win streak going.''

Though Rodman's 17 rebounds drew much of the attention, the lesser-known starting power forward made a strong contribution. Travis Knight scored 10 of his 12 points in a 12-8 run to start the third quarter and give the Lakers their first lead, which they kept the rest of the way.

All that was left to do was get home. And to find O'Neal some new duds.

``Shawn Bradley was gracious enough to give me these sweats, so thank you Shawn,'' O'Neal quipped.

``I think we're all ready to get home,'' Bryant said. ``Ready to see the Forum.''

CAPTION(S):

Photo

PHOTO (Color) The Lakers' Sean Rooks, left, goes for a loose ball with Dallas' Gary Trent (33) in the first half.

Bill Janscha/Associated Press
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 23, 1999
Words:679
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