SAN ANTONIO — Laker hopes rose Friday night that the real Maurice Lucas has finally arrived, just in time for the playoffs, which is what they got him for in the first place.
The reason for such optimism was the way Lucas played in a difficult 117-109 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
And how did Lucas play? He shot jumpers, he drove to the basket, he rebounded and he put some serious hurt on several Spurs, who were certainly beat up enough coming into the game.
Lucas finished with 16 points in 27 minutes. He finished with 11 rebounds, to lead everyone, and he also finished with three ice packs, which also led everyone else.
"I feel like somebody just shot my whole right side," Lucas said.
There has been a great deal wrong with Lucas lately. His right elbow is hyperextended. His right ankle is twisted. His right knee is sore. But there's also been a lot wrong with his game.
Against the Clippers on Wednesday night, he did not make a shot, and Coach Pat Riley noticed.
"Luke's played really hard, but he has got to be a lot more consistent, night-in and night-out," Riley said. "If he keeps doing the basic things on defense, good things will happen at the other end of the court. He can't always think shot or he forces the issue."
It's no secret that the Lakers were interested in Lucas for what he could do in the playoffs, such as rebounding and defense. Right about now, Lucas said he's just starting to come around.
"I sure hope so," he said. "I've got so many nagging injuries that I'm just trying to play through them. I don't want to sit out because I'd lose my timing. I'm trying to get myself psychologically ready."
The Lakers' victory over the downtrodden Spurs was a pretty good tonic for their own mental well-being, especially after blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in the loss to the Clippers.
It didn't seem to matter to the Lakers that the Spurs were playing without two starters and have lost 14 of its last 16 games. Even without center Artis Gilmore and point guard Johnny Moore, the Spurs played the Lakers evenly until two things happened.
One was Magic Johnson, who was basically happening at the free-throw line. That was a direct result of his breaking down the San Antonio inner defense with driving moves to the hoop. The other factor was Lucas.
Johnson scored 27 points, but 15 came at the free-throw line and most of them were in the second half when the Lakers put the Spurs away. Magic shot 14 free throws in the second half, only three short of the entire Spurs team.
"We got a little tired," San Antonio Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said. "Magic really took it to us in the third quarter when he was penetrating our middle."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had 26 points, but the Spurs did a pretty good job defending him with Gilmore's replacements, David Greenwood and Steve Johnson. Abdul-Jabbar made only 11 of 28 shots.
And since James Worthy was struggling with fouls, the Lakers were looking for some scoring punch. That's where Lucas came in.
Actually, Lucas came in a little earlier. Five minutes into the third quarter, the Spurs led, 75-67, and Lucas replaced A.C. Green. From that point on, until there were just under six minutes left, the Lakers outscored the Spurs, 37-18.
"Now, Luke has learned to get layups instead of outside shots," Magic said. "We're all reading each other better. Maybe it took longer than expected, but I'm glad it's happening now because this is when we need him the most."
The Spurs need a lot of everything right now, but most of all good health and a few victories if they are to stay in the playoff picture.
"I'd have liked to play them without Kareem and Magic and then see what happened," Fitzsimmons said. "But look, that's the way it goes.
"We need to make the playoffs," he said. "There's no reason in the world to tank some games and get in the lottery. I don't see any Olajuwons or Sampsons out there."
Mike Mitchell scored 32 points to lead the Spurs, and Steve Johnson had 22, but San Antonio is having trouble getting a lot of points without Gilmore. The Spurs got 36 in the first quarter but only 47 in the second half.
Lucas has his own health worries.
"I'm feeling a lot better," he said. "I'd like to finish strong. I understand the playoffs are a whole other season. They play a lot more physical. That's more to my liking. I'll be ready. I know that's what I'm here for."
The Lakers play at Sacramento tonight against the Kings in one of those oddball quirks of scheduling. The Lakers caught a bus from their hotel at 6:15 a.m., which is 4:15 Los Angeles time, then took a 7 a.m. flight to Denver, where they changed airplanes for another flight to Sacramento. . . . Ronnie Lester did not play for the ninth straight game, leading to speculation that the Lakers may keep 7-2 Peter Gudmundsson on the roster for the playoffs when Mitch Kupchak comes back and then release Lester.