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Injuries Are Critical Factor as Lakers Beat Suns, 99-91

February 26, 1987|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

For Laker fans in the habit of meditating before their morning bowl of crunchy granola, a thought for the day:

If your team had the injury problems that the Phoenix Suns are having, where do you suppose they would be now?

The answer: Don't ask.

For the last two nights, the Suns had the advantage of playing a Laker team that was without Magic Johnson but still lost both times, by 99-91 Wednesday night at the Forum after dropping a 97-93 decision in Phoenix the night before.

But consider this: Until Magic sat out, the Lakers have not been missing a player for the last 28 games, or since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed three games in December with an eye infection.

The Suns, on the other hand, don't even bother warming up anymore. Instead, they have a head count, to make sure they have enough bodies.

They have two centers, Alvan Adams and James Edwards, who would have been more than happy to help rookie William Bedford joust with Abdul-Jabbar, a man 15 calendar years and untold light years ahead of Bedford.

Chances are Bedford wouldn't have even been in the game when Abdul-Jabbar knocked a pass away from the Sun center, retrieved the ball and went in for a breakaway jam, giving the Lakers a four-point lead, 95-91, with 1:03 to play.

But Edwards hasn't played in 42 games because of surgery on his Achilles' tendon, and Adams fell on his face in practice Monday, took 15 stitches around his left eye and has not played since.

The Suns, who made a shocking 15-point run and held the Lakers scoreless for 5:22 of the third period, might have held onto their 76-69 lead with a veteran backcourt starting the fourth quarter.

But point guard Jay Humphries went down with a calf injury in the first half Wednesday, and a rookie, Jeff Hornacek, was given the task of running the Phoenix offense. When Hornacek wasn't in there, Pepperdine alumnus Grant Gondrezick, another rookie, was.

While Byron Scott ignited the Lakers, hitting a three-pointer to close out the third quarter, feeding James Worthy for a slam, burying an 18-footer, and going in for a jam himself at the start of the final period, the Suns scored 15 points in the last 12 minutes.

The best player on the floor Wednesday night was Sun forward Larry Nance, who scored 24 points and had 9 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. And he wasn't even supposed to be here. Nance had a bruised hip and a sore back from the night before, was listed as doubtful, but flew in after the team and played 46 minutes.

It's enough to make a coach cry. It's almost been enough to get one coach, John MacLeod of the Suns, fired.

"It makes a big difference when you don't have your people hurt," said MacLeod, under fire in Phoenix for the Suns' 22-34 record. "And we've had people injured three stinkin' years. It's difficult as heck to produce any kind of consistency."

Hurting the Suns just as much the last two nights, however, was Abdul-Jabbar. First, he hit a three-point shot in Phoenix. Then Wednesday, he scored 26 points, 10 in the fourth quarter, to lead the Lakers in scoring for the first time since he and Magic Johnson both scored 25 Dec. 16 against Cleveland.

And, to top it all, there was the steal, which generated the same eruption on the Laker bench as the three-point bomb the night before.

"Ask him about his Oscar Robertson imitation," Mychal Thompson said. "He should have pulled up (for the jumper), faded away and back-pedaled as the ball went through the net. That would have been the classic ending to that play."

Abdul-Jabbar played it straight, although once he determined there was no one between him and the basket, he went coast to coast.

Without Magic, Laker Coach Pat Riley said the other players were inclined to try to do too much, especially Worthy, who made just 6 of 19 shots. Riley yanked the Laker forward in the third quarter, but when Worthy returned, he triggered the Laker running game with 5 fourth-quarter rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 dunks.

"I think it's something that automatically happens," Worthy said. "A player wants to pick up the pieces, and ends up trying too hard. I was getting double- and triple-teamed, but I was still trying to force it inside instead of passing the ball out."

For the last two nights, the Lakers have asked Michael Cooper to play Magic, or at least point guard, and he has responded. Tuesday, he scored 21 points, the first time in five years he had led the team in scoring.

Wednesday, Cooper nearly had a Magic-like triple-double: 16 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists.

"Cooper had some big shoes to fill," Worthy said. "Had we lost the last two games, it probably would have fallen on his shoulders. But you couldn't ask for a better job. Anywhere else, he'd be starting."

Probably even in Phoenix. Ask John MacLeod.

Laker Notes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said he has not spoken to General Manager Jerry West regarding the critical remarks West reportedly made about the Laker center. But West did contact him through an intermediary, Abdul-Jabbar said, to deny that he had ever said Abdul-Jabbar was "killing" the Lakers, or that he had accused him of a lack of leadership or hustle. Those comments were attributed to West by New York Post columnist Peter Vecsey last Friday. "I have to take his (West's) word for it," Abdul-Jabbar said. "My parents are living in New York and tell me some of the things Vecsey says, and I know the quotes are not accurate." West is said to be extremely upset about the Post article. Abdul-Jabbar said he plans to sit down with Laker management next week to finalize a contract extension.

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