The Lakers' nine-game winning streak became a memory Tuesday night on the bounce of a basketball. No, better make that 21 bounces.
The Denver Nuggets' Alex English scored 41 points, and although that hurt, it didn't do any more damage than the 21 offensive rebounds the Nuggets found in their hands.
The result was a 126-124 victory for the Nuggets, who blew an 11-point lead in the third quarter only to hang on and win for the first time in their last four games.
Actually, the game was played on fairly even terms. Both teams had star players injured--Magic Johnson of the Lakers sat out with a sprained finger, and Calvin Natt of the Nuggets left in the second quarter with a bruised calf--and both teams were streaking, although in opposite directions.
"We thought it was a good time to catch them," Nugget guard Lafayette Lever said. "They can't win too many in a row, and we were coming in with a bunch of losses in a row."
So Lever was right, even though Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played as though he didn't believe it.
Abdul-Jabbar scored a season-high 35 points, blocked 6 shots and pulled down 12 rebounds. He also had 6 of the Lakers' 11 offensive rebounds.
By contrast, the Lakers were no match for all the Nuggets streaking to the offensive glass in the stretch run.
"We couldn't stop them on the offensive boards," Abdul-Jabbar said.
Many of the Nuggets' offensive rebounds were because of the way the ball bounced. For some reason, the shots the Nuggets clanked were bouncing long off the rim.
"Some nights, they might not bounce your way at all and you might not get a single one, and other times, you look down and the ball is in your hands already," Bill Hanzlik said. "I guess sometimes you're lucky and sometimes you're not."
English had 6 of the Nuggets' 21 offensive rebounds, but the biggest impression was made by Hanzlik, who had four of them, all in the last quarter while playing for the injured Natt.
"I'll lose my starting job if he keeps that up," Natt said.
English scored on an offensive rebound with 2:26 left to give Denver a 122-116 lead, and after Abdul-Jabbar countered with a driving basket, Hanzlik rebounded Dan Issel's missed shot and put the ball back in the hoop to keep the Nuggets up by six with 1:25 remaining.
Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy made it a two-point game, but Issel scored on a give-and-go from English. Abdul-Jabbar's hook with 27 seconds left brought the Lakers within two at 126-124, but that's where the Nuggets kept it.
With three seconds difference between the game clock and the shot clock, Coach Doug Moe instructed the Nuggets not to take a shot until the 24-second clock was down to nothing.
The Lakers' only chance was to foul and hope for a missed free throw, but Byron Scott didn't hear Coach Pat Riley hollering for a foul on Lever until the Denver guard already had gotten rid of the ball.
Lever, surprised no one fouled him, backed away from the hoop and finally passed to Issel, whose shot bounced long off the rim and into Lever's hands at the buzzer.
"Someone should have fouled me, especially the way I was shooting free throws," said Lever, who was 4 for 6 from the line.
Scott said he didn't catch Riley's instructions to foul until Lever already had passed the ball to Issel.
"By then, it was just too late," he said.
Without Johnson working the point, Michael Cooper came up with a season-high 16 assists and 19 points. Cooper also did a good defensive job in the second half on English, who had 26 points at halftime.
The Lakers could have used Johnson's spark in the first half, especially in the second quarter, when Denver scored 41 points.
Even though Worthy and Scott each scored 22 points for the Lakers, there just wasn't enough rebounding to go around. Cooper had seven, the most of any Laker except Abdul-Jabbar.
"We tried to box out under the basket, but every time the ball just seemed to bounce over our fingertips," Worthy said.
The Lakers, 1-2 in games without Johnson, lost for the first time since Dec. 13, when they were defeated in an overtime game at Seattle.
"We had a good run, but it's over now," Riley said. "I have no complaints, except for some offensive rebounding at the end."
Abdul-Jabbar said he might have been in better position for more rebounds if he hadn't had to chase Issel (18 points), a center who likes to shoot from the outside.
"I'm out there running around trying to find Issel and not doing a very good job of it," he said. "That left the rebounding lanes open because they don't play an orthodox set."
Abdul-Jabbar said he would not mourn the end of the Lakers' winning streak.
"Winning nine in a row is a lot better than losing nine in a row," he said. "I'll take our position over the Clippers' any time."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who agreed to a $2-million contract for the 1985-86 season a month ago, still has not signed it. Laker General Manager Jerry West said he has been notified by Laker attorney Jerry Fine that the written contract is nearly finished. West met with Abdul-Jabbar at practice and informed him of the progress. . . . Magic Johnson will practice today wearing a splint on his sprained right index finger and could play Thursday night at the Forum against Utah. . . . After the Jazz game, the Lakers travel to Dallas to begin their toughest trip of the season. The Lakers, 9-7 on the road, play the Mavericks Friday night, the Pistons Sunday afternoon, the Bucks Tuesday night and the NBA champion Celtics Wednesday night.