Knowing full well that keeping Eric (Sleepy) Floyd from averaging 29 points per quarter was all they needed to do Tuesday night to proceed to the Western Conference finals, the Lakers turned to their semi-main man, America's Bench Warmer, the atomic sub, the minister of defense and the sergeant of long arms, Michael (Wide Awake) Cooper.
Slumping badly, Sleepy did not score 116 points.
And as a matter of fact, neither did the Golden State Warriors, who never got 30 points in any quarter of a 118-106 loss that wiped them right out of the National Basketball Assn. playoffs.
The fabulous Cooper came to the Fabulous Forum determined to do two things:
(1) Not let Floyd score 51 points for the game or 29 for any one period, which happened Sunday.
(2) Not let his emotions get the best of him, making sure he used his long reach more for blocking shots than for giving high-fives.
Cooper and the Lakers both had gotten a little big for their purple britches the other day at Oakland, celebrating a little too soon and rubbing it in the Warriors' faces whenever they made a great play. The Laker players made a pledge before Tuesday's game that they would keep that stuff to a minimum.
They decided to forget that other junk and just play basketball. "I think that's going to be our cliche from now on--'just play basketball,' " Cooper said.
He even came up with a name for the new, subdued Lakers.
"The Silent Assassins," Cooper said.
Before Tuesday's game, the Laker sixth man was presented a plaque distinguishing him as the NBA's defensive player of the year. It was a richly deserved award and poorly timed.
His last time out on a court, Cooper and his companions had played as though they were in a trance. Eric Floyd waved a pocket watch in front of them and said: "You're getting Sleepy, Sleepy, Sleepy."
Coop played crummy defense and so did everybody else. The Lakers seemed far too preoccupied with slapping one other's palms and congratulating themselves on another job well done--before the job ever got done.
The Warriors didn't care for that much.
"They caught us," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said. "We were kind of looking in a mirror, admiring ourselves. And they made us pay for it. That was a good lesson to us."
By the time the game was over, Sleepy Floyd was strolling off the floor with a wicked gleam in his eyes, a satisfied expression on his face and a parting shot for Cooper on his lips. "Coop. Coop," Floyd called to him. "You. You."
He wasn't calling yoo-hoo for nothing. What he was doing was reminding Cooper and the Lakers not to take things for granted, and not to act like a bunch of wise guys.
Coach George Karl of the Warriors really got a kick out of the fact that Cooper was to receive his hardware as the best defensive player in his very next appearance after the man he was guarding got 51 points.
"We're gonna let Sleepy give him the award," Karl joked before Tuesday's game.
There were no hard feelings, though. When Cooper came onto the court to collect, Floyd sat on the Golden State bench, clapping his hands.
Later on, Sleepy and Coopy exchanged a few unpleasant words, but that didn't matter much. The Laker star went on to give another of his amazing defensive efforts, his team went on to win the game easily, and all was well in Inglewood.
Being thought of as the best in his chosen field--defense--meant a lot to Cooper. What pleased him most is that every player in the league is considered for the honor, starters and substitutes alike.
Cooper had hoped to be acclaimed as the NBA's top sixth man, but Ricky Pierce of the Milwaukee Bucks--a man who started more than 30 games--was given that distinction instead. Michael and his wife, Wanda, wondered about that for a minute or two, then forgot about it.
"My wife and I try to get together and analyze my game, how I'm doing and and all," Cooper said. "And we both felt that this had been the best year I'd ever had, not just on defense, but overall. I had my eye on that sixth-man award, but that's OK. I'll really cherish this defensive award because that's my forte. And to get it over everybody, including starters and great defensive players like Alvin Robertson and D.J. (Dennis Johnson) is very gratifying."
Laker Coach Pat Riley was pleased, too. "If there's anybody on the team that deserves anything, it's Mike Cooper, because of his sacrifices. In eight years, he has never clamored to be a starter or to go somewhere else. Oh, he wanted a little more money last summer and said 'trade me' once or twice, but other than that, he's been as loyal and as dependable a player as we've ever had."
Trade him? Trade Wide Awake Cooper?
No way. The fabulous fans would turn the Forum into a fabulous pile of ashes. They'd burn the place to the ground if Cooper got traded.