The Denver Nuggets, who played the Lakers like an off-color joke last season, showed up at the Forum minus the laugh track Friday night.
No whoopee cushions, slippery peels or exploding cigars, either. Sure, Doug Moe was there, but the comic who doubles as a coach wasn't interested in playing second banana to the Lakers' Pat Riley.
This time, the Nuggets played it straight, and the Lakers--who were minus James Worthy--had to play for all they were worth to come away with a 127-119 win before a crowd of 17,505.
No Laker was more earnest in his endeavors than A.C. Green, whose idea of a one-liner is John 3:16. Green scored a career-high 28 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, a saving grace on a night when Worthy was in street clothes because of his sore left knee.
And just when it seemed time to file a missing-persons report on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Laker center scored a season-high 26 points, including the sky hook that broke a 104-104 tie midway through the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets, despite a boffo finish by Alex English--17 points in the last quarter--never recovered, especially after English's wide-open jumper from the free- throw line went in and out following Abdul-Jabbar's go-ahead basket.
Michael Cooper, who started in Worthy's place and scored 18 points while giving out 11 assists, hit a fallaway 17-footer to make it 108-104. Then Magic Johnson, who had dished off in the face of constant double-teaming, hit a jumper and followed with a running hook shot to make it 112-106.
The Nuggets pulled to within two, 118-116, on a three-pointer by Lafayette (Fat) Lever with 2:18 to go. But after a Laker time out, it was time again for Abdul-Jabbar, who hooked in two more shots and added a free throw.
The Lakers thus avoided the stigma of a three-game losing streak, something they did not experience last season, and ran their record to 9-2.
"When they tied it I thought we played our best basketball all season," Riley said. "We got the ball to the right people, and executed good shots. We were much sharper in that situation."
It was no accident that the Lakers went more to Abdul-Jabbar, who had averaged just 11 points in his last four games. It wasn't entirely by design, however, that Abdul-Jabbar wound up with a 16-foot jumper after the Lakers had called time out with no time remaining just before intermission, a basket that gave the Lakers a 67-52 lead.
Center Danny Schayes, who had an otherwise fine game for the Nuggets--20 points and 14 rebounds--threw away the inbounds pass with a second left. Riley called time out and sketched an alley-oop to Green. He was covered, however, so the pass went to Abdul-Jabbar, who buried the jumper and left the court waving his fist in triumph.
"It was funny," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I was the last guy on the floor who was supposed to shoot the ball."
In that situation, yes. Otherwise, no, especially with Johnson drawing so much defensive attention--and with public murmurings about Abdul-Jabbar's sub-par play.
"You know how he is--every time he's talked about negatively, he always comes back," said Johnson, who had a season-high 16 assists.
"As soon as you say something bad, he dominates the next opponent."
Abdul-Jabbar's problems weren't entirely of his making, Johnson said.
"It was half his thing, half our thing," Johnson said. "We weren't delivering the ball to him in the right spot, and now he's rounding into his form, getting his timing right."
With Worthy a spectator, Green couldn't have timed his biggest offensive game any better. As usual, most of his points came on second-effort follow shots, although he did barrel down the lane for one shot that he threw in with his back to the basket while being fouled by T.R. Dunn.
His performance made for a rare sight in the Laker dressing room: While Magic dressed in near-solitude, a crowd of reporters circled Green.
Johnson, asked whether he'd like to negotiate Green's next contract, smiled. Green, the lowest-paid of the Laker starters, is making $200,000 this season, with another year remaining on his contract.
"He's going to do well, no question," Johnson said. "He's working very, very hard, on both ends of the floor. Whatever he gets, he deserves. He earned it."
Moe thought the Nuggets played well enough to deserve a win.
"We gave ourselves a chance to win tonight," said Moe, whose team went 0-8 against the Lakers last season, including three straight in the playoffs. "If you give yourself a chance to win, you're going to be a better team.
"I thought we were going to steal away with a win."
Laker Notes Contrary to an announcement by the team, James Worthy did not practice the last two days. He was examined by a doctor before the game and scratched from playing. Worthy has tendinitis in his left knee. "He's had it all of his career," trainer Gary Vitti said. "He thought he could play in Seattle without it inhibiting his game, but it became worse, and we kept him out of both practices. He took part in the shootaround today a little bit--it was better, but he still doesn't feel completely comfortable. It's bothering him more than when he just plays, which does concern us."