INGLEWOOD, CALIF., FEB. 5 -- It was hardly to be believed, much less accepted, when the Los Angeles Lakers floundered in November. They were evolving into something different, an image that perhaps they weren't ready for. Defense before dazzle, Mike Dunleavy's basketball philosophy, was suffering through a troubled infancy.

"Obviously, I hoped we were better than 2-5," said Dunleavy, the Lakers' rookie coach, of his team's nightmarish start.

He can smile when he talks about those days, that first month in Los Angeles more than 30 games ago. Much has happened since, and most of it relates to winning.

The Lakers, thriving in half-court sets and stifling the opposition at the other end, have a 16-game winning streak after tonight's intra-city victory over the Clippers. The streak has quickly legitimized the presence of Dunleavy, the successor to Pat Riley, who coached the team to four titles before leaving for NBC.

Even league-leading Portland is in sight again, 3 1/2 games away, after a 15-2 Lakers' January virtually halved a 7 1/2-game Pacific Division deficit.

"I don't think they're fading, but we're gaining on them," said quippy veteran center Mychal Thompson. "{And} we're not as good as we're going to be in May."

The Lakers have taken to Dunleavy's deliberate system, which emphasizes defense and patience.

Their willingness has coincided with the settling in of free-agent forward Sam Perkins, the emergence of Yugoslavian import Vlade Divac and the resurgence of shooting guard Byron Scott -- each a key figure in Los Angeles' strong first half. And, as usual, Magic Johnson and James Worthy are Dunleavy's dominant personalities.

"We're not bad," Thompson said. "We're just not getting carried away with ourselves. This is such a long season."

Had the Lakers not recovered from four losses in its first five games, their long season might have worn on longer than Sacramento's.

But in turning things around so dramatically, the Lakers have overshadowed the occasional off-court events that could have caused further problems -- Worthy's arrest in Houston for solicitation and Johnson's mini-feud with General Manager Jerry West.

Dunleavy and defense: The Lakers are comfortable playing for him and playing his system, even though some haven't grasped it totally.

"I feel like it's starting to come, especially the last four or five games," said guard Terry Teagle, for whom Los Angeles, seeking bench strength, traded a 1991 first-round draft pick to Golden State.

"Earlier we weren't running that much. It was hard to get off the shots we wanted. But now our defense is creating a lot of turnovers, and it's really helping out a lot."

With Perkins, Divac and A.C. Green rebounding well, and Scott apparently healed from hamstring problems that plagued him in last year's second-round playoff loss to Phoenix, the Lakers have rediscovered their transition game of late, running less than in the past but more than they did in the first 20-30 games.

The defense, however, is their strongest weapon. It is the league's best outside of Detroit, holding teams under 100 points in 25 games, including 12 of the past 17.

If Los Angeles maintains its current pace (99.1), this would be the first Lakers season in which it gave up less than 103.9 points a game.

The Lakers, while almost suffering an immeasurable loss when Johnson went down with a concussion from which he quickly recovered, gained immeasurable credibility at the Forum on Sunday. Scott and Teagle combined to limit Michael Jordan to 23 points in a 99-86 victory over Chicago, the first time since mid-December (22 games) that Jordan didn't lead the Bulls in scoring.

In Chicago's 114-103 win over the visiting Lakers Dec. 21, Jordan scored 33 -- two above his average.

"They really collapse on you {with} good team defense," Jordan said. "I think they deserve the recognition they get."

Lakers players are saying likewise of Dunleavy's being chosen NBA coach of the month for January.

The league's youngest coach at 36, Dunleavy was activated briefly last season while an assistant to Del Harris at Milwaukee. The rapport with his players comes naturally.

"He was a player not too long ago, so he knows when we're tired, when to push us," Green said. "We really like his style and personality. It's really easy to work with him."

That assessment comes from a player -- an all-star in 1990 -- who was benched by Dunleavy in favor of Perkins after the Lakers' slow start. Green hasn't complained.

"I've been surprised with the quality of player on this team," Dunleavy said. "They're all just a tremendous group of guys. When things were bad they didn't jump off the ship.

"I didn't expect us to start 2-5. Then, on the other side I didn't expect a 15-0 streak. We've done a real good job of focusing on the team we have to play next."

If Dunleavy's team lacks anything, it's depth at guard, in which Portland boasts a decided advantage.

Teagle, better suited for a more active offense, hasn't been consistent as Scott's backup. And at the point, Dunleavy has installed Tony Smith, picked No. 51 in the 1990 NBA draft out of Marquette, as Johnson's understudy ahead of veteran Larry Drew.

Although he's untested, Smith showed promise against Chicago, scoring six of his eight points in the fourth quarter with only one turnover after Johnson was injured at the end of the third quarter. Johnson returned to action good as ever tonight, but Smith's playing time figures to increase slightly in preparation for the playoffs.

Smith is "growing into the role, he's growing as a player," Dunleavy said. "Right now we're going good, so we have to give the guy a chance."

Dunleavy's fondness for Smith is not surprising: both are rookies under pressure. The coach, though, isn't offering a grade on his own performance yet.

"I won't do that," he said. "I'll leave that to you guys."

But Dunleavy gladly talks about his players, who he said never resisted the new aspects he implemented in training camp.

"I've never been in a situation that you don't give someone a chance," he said.