RICHFIELD, Ohio — If this keeps up--and by the looks of James Worthy's left knee, it just might--the Lakers will be starring in a lot of highlight films around the National Basketball Assn. this season.
It's payback time, when those downtrodden teams who have always envied the life styles of the rich and famous catch the Lakers in the unexpected position of being down and out in Beverly Hills.
Not only in Beverly Hills, but in places such as Seattle, Milwaukee and, Saturday night, in suburban Cleveland, where the Cavaliers' reach finally exceeded the Lakers' grasp. The long fingers of Tyrone Corbin's left hand tipped in Brad Daugherty's missed shot at the buzzer, giving the Cavaliers a 97-95 win over the Lakers before a crowd of 20,015 that watched the home team celebrate as if it had won the NBA title.
The Lakers, meanwhile, lost their third straight game, an experience that was foreign in that championship season of 1986-87. They lost four straight to Houston in the 1986 playoffs, and three straight in January of that year, but those days are almost as remote to the Lakers as the Cavaliers' last win over the defending champions here, which came in four overtimes seven years ago.
Without Worthy, another distant memory in the making is the Laker fast break, which has produced exactly two layup baskets in the last two games, losses to the Bucks and Cavaliers. A Laker team that walks almost assuredly will stumble on its quest to repeat as NBA champions.
Is it possible that--their 8-0 start notwithstanding--the Lakers peaked last June, and accumulated aches and age are catching up with them this season?
"I don't want to accept that right now," said Magic Johnson, who was sandwiched between two Cavaliers when Corbin tapped the game-winning shot into the basket.
"We're only 15 games into the season, and there's a long way to go.
"It's too early. Just like Boston slumped last season, and everybody thought they were going (down), but they made it to the championship. It was too early to say it was over for them.
"We're going to be fine. We have to get one win, then turn it into two. We have to pick ourselves up and come out fighting like champions normally do."
The Lakers can fight as much as they want, but with Worthy in street clothes, there are plenty of teams willing to stand up to them. Saturday's loss left them tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the Pacific Division lead with 10-5 records. Usually by this time, the Lakers have the division title wrapped up.
Worthy played spectator again after trying to play 20 minutes in Milwaukee Friday night, and his concern about his left knee is growing greater as the pain refuses to lessen. Coach Pat Riley didn't rule out the possibility that Worthy may have to return to Los Angeles while the team continues its five-city trip.
It's possible that Worthy will try to play again Wednesday in New Jersey, but if the pain persists, he'll be sent home before next Friday's game against the Celtics.
"It ain't getting any worse, but it ain't getting too much better," said Worthy, who first complained of the pain two weeks ago against the Bucks at the Forum.
He tried playing two nights later in Seattle but was forced to come out after 17 scoreless minutes. He sat out the next three games, gave it a whirl in Milwaukee, then gave it up again Saturday night when consecutive games proved out of the question.
The condition has been diagnosed as patellar tendinitis, something that Worthy has had to live with for the last two years. But usually, he says, there is swelling for a game or two, then it subsides. This time, it won't go away, and he is beginning to fear that it may be something more serious.
"This is the first time I've experienced these prolonged, chronic sharp pains in the knee," he said. "I can't play the way I want to play. I don't want to be playing when I have to be thinking about aching, too.
"We've had it X-rayed several times, I've had top therapists look at, and it's something we've got to look at even more. There are so many possibilities as to what could be wrong."
What's wrong with the Lakers without Worthy is apparent to even the most casual observer. This is the third time they've failed to break 100 points, beginning with the Seattle game, and after shooting a woeful 41.2% Saturday against the Cavaliers, they have failed to break 50% in six of their last seven games.
"This team has manufactured 60% of its offense on the break," Riley said. "But without James, we don't have our greatest runner, and our greatest finisher."
What he had Saturday instead was a lineup in which Kurt Rambis started for the first time since Nov. 23, 1986, when A.C. Green was still out with a thumb injury.
The Lakers' last lead was at 28-22 four minutes into the second quarter, and the only reason they were in a position to win was some furious defense at the end, which erased a 93-87 Cleveland advantage fashioned by two straight Del Curry breakaway jams.