The Lakers lurched one game closer Tuesday night to putting the Dallas Mavericks behind them, and the way things are going, that would be no minor accomplishment.
In a continuing playoff series of low comedy matched by high drama, the Lakers took a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven NBA conference semifinals with a difficult 116-113 victory in the Forum.
Once again, the Lakers saw big numbers put up by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who reached his 1986 playoff high of 34 points, and by Magic Johnson, who had 29. But they were barely enough to dampen the Mavericks' enthusiasm.
Now, the Lakers can wrap up the series with a victory Thursday night in Dallas. Pressure? It appears to be shifting, depending on who's doing the talking.
"The pressure is on the Lakers," Dallas Coach Dick Motta said. "They have to win this series, and that's tough."
While that may be true, it seemed in Game 5 that the Maverick jerseys were getting a little tight around the collar. They missed 13 free throws.
Laker Coach Pat Riley didn't miss an opportunity to point that out.
"The ball looked a little heavy at the free-throw line," he said. "It might even get heavier."
In spite of all the problems that the Mavericks experienced at the line, it wasn't until the last two minutes of the game that the Lakers went ahead to stay.
With 2:30 to go, the Lakers and Mavericks were tied at 107. Who would crack first? Actually, nobody did.
Michael Cooper, who rang up 17 points in 32 minutes of extended play, gave the Lakers a two-point lead on a jumper from the free-throw line. Seconds later, that is where Mark Aguirre found himself after Maurice Lucas fouled him.
But Aguirre made only one of two free throws, and the Lakers held the lead for good.
"If we would have hit half our free throws, the game would have been a lot different," Aguirre said.
Something was different for the Lakers, though. Abdul-Jabbar, who had only one rebound in Game 4, picked off eight this time. He scored on an offensive rebound after a missed shot by James Worthy for a 113-108 Laker lead with 1:44 to go.
After Sam Perkins misfired, Lucas rebounded and Johnson scored on a give-and-go from Abdul-Jabbar, one of the Laker center's nine assists.
Two free throws by Perkins with 31 seconds remaining cut the Laker lead to three points, but Abdul-Jabbar's hook with nine seconds left got the Laker lead back to five.
That lasted all of four seconds, until Brad Davis launched a three-pointer, but Worthy sank a free throw with one second remaining and Aguirre's desperate two-handed heave was long at the buzzer.
So the Lakers survived another close call. There hasn't been much of a margin separating them from the Mavericks, the last four games have being decided by a total of 11 points.
Even though this series hasn't needed it, Motta continued to do his best to liven things up.
"Nothing they're doing is bothering us, really," he said. "We're outhustling them and we're outplaying them. I'm not playing mind games, either, but the series should be 4-1 now."
But, Dick, you're down, 3-2.
"I know, but I like our position," he said.
The Lakers don't mind their position either. They even felt confident when Worthy played only eight minutes of the first half because of foul trouble.
Cooper was quickly pressed into service and wound up hurting the Mavericks with a trio of three-pointers. Cooper's 17 points were the most he had scored this season in the playoffs.
It didn't help the Lakers, either, when Byron Scott experienced back spasms in the first quarter, then sprained his right thumb. Scott shot only 3 of 13 and finished with six points, but he was quite pleased that he wasn't the only one missing shots.
"It was nice to see them miss all those free throws," Scott said of the Mavericks. "They haven't been missing too many of anything. Maybe we should have been fouling them the whole time."
Riley not only considered a change of strategy, he made one on a gamble that seemed to pay off. Riley put Johnson on Perkins, Scott on Derek Harper and Worthy on Blackman.
Even though Blackman had 11 points in the first quarter and forced Worthy to the bench with fouls, Perkins managed to make only 2 of 9 shots and finished with seven points.
Aguirre labored 39 minutes and came up with 27 points, and Blackman produced 23 points. But Worthy got hot in the second half and wound up with 19, which pretty much evened the matchup.
At the same time, the series is once again uneven. With the players and both coaches trying to pin the pressure on everybody else, no one except Johnson was willing to accept it.
"All right, we'll take the pressure," he said. "Let's just put them on vacation either way."
Dallas Coach Dick Motta admitted before the game that his comments on the Lakers this series have been no mistake. "It's a calculated thing," he said. "What have we got to lose? Even the fact that they are being heard makes it all worthwhile." . . . Kurt Rambis played only 21 minutes, but he led all rebounders with 10.