EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — How thoughtful of the Lakers to stage a little championship ring ceremony here Tuesday night for ex-teammate Adrian Branch. If Branch expects to collect one with his new team, the New Jersey Nets, he'd better plan on playing well into the 21st Century.
By then, the Nets may score again, too. Tuesday night, the Lakers held them without a point for the last 4:38 of a 32-point Net second half and won going away, 98-81, thus ending their losing streak at three games while extending New Jersey's to nine in a row.
Save those "What's Wrong With the Lakers" headlines for a little while longer, though. Even with 27 strong minutes from James Worthy, who scored 18 points, blocked 3 shots, made 2 steals and grabbed 4 rebounds, the Lakers still struggled enough to add another worry line or two to Jerry West's forehead.
The Nets, after all, are the 1986-87 Clippers relocated in a Jersey swamp. The head coach, Dave Wohl, is living on borrowed time, considering the Nets are 2-13 and have won just 65 of 179 games in his tenure. The new general manager, Harry Weltman, is already being roasted for such deals as acquiring a chronically injured forward, Keith Lee, and trading for a rookie, Dallas Comegys, of whom Denver Coach Doug Moe recently said: "He couldn't play dead."
At the moment, no one rolls over better than the Nets--they lost their last game by 37 points to an Atlanta team that was missing Dominique Wilkins--but all night Tuesday, they kept within a 10- to 12-point range of the Lakers. After rookie Dennis Hopson made one of two free throws, they were within nine, 90-81, but then someone turned off the popcorn machine.
New Jersey turned the ball over three straight times, John Bagley blew a breakaway layup after a great steal and pass by the Nets' one top-shelf player, Buck Williams, and Otis Birdsong's jump shot went south--maybe not for the winter, but certainly for the rest of the game.
With that as background, you think the Nets are going to feel sorry at all for the Lakers, just because they had lost three straight? No chance. If there's pity to be had by anyone, it might be Branch, who was sold to New Jersey when the Lakers signed Jeff Lamp. Lamp, of course, is out for the season with a shoulder injury.
"It was nice that the captain (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the gang gave me the ring," said Branch, who made just a cameo appearance (5 minutes, 0 points) after getting the spotlight before the game.
"That's the stuff, you remember, the stuff you take with you for a long time," Branch said. "I was glad to be part of it, the experience of playing with the world's best team."
And what is Branch experiencing now?
"Reality," he said. "It's a case of extremes. I've gone from one extreme to the other."
The Lakers, of course, have gone from very, very good--an 8-0 start--to very, very bad, at least by their own exalted standards. Even with a healthy Worthy--and it remains to be seen whether his left knee will allow him to play tonight in Washington--Magic Johnson cautioned that a revival of Showtime is not necessarily right around the corner.
"We realize what's happening," said Johnson, who had his third triple-double of the season--14 assists, 13 rebounds and 13 points. "We know we'll slowly get to where we want."
How slowly? Figure Johnson will give it at least three days--the Lakers play the Celtics Friday night in Boston.
Johnson laughed. "Of course, Boston is going to bring out the best," he said.
Wohl, a one-time Laker assistant, noted that his former team was at something less than its best Tuesday.
"They're going through a rare struggling period," he said. "I don't think it's anything serious. The only thing they're not doing is their defense isn't that good.
"And the things they're not doing defensively are little things: They're not reacting to switches, loose balls, rotations like they did last season, although I thought they did it in the last six minutes tonight."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was noticeably around at the end, hitting a pair of sky hooks--he finished with 17 points--while avoiding fouling out after picking up his fifth personal with 4:38 left. Wohl, for one, said he wasn't buying the whispers about Abdul-Jabbar's imminent decline.
"If you give Kareem 20 shots a game, he's going to get 20 points," Wohl said. "If he gets 7,8, or 9 shots, he'll get 10 points.
"You saw what he did down the stretch. When they needed a big hoop, he got the hoop.
"When I was with the Lakers, the early part of the season was the toughest for him. Not physically, but mentally. Game 15 is tougher for him than Game 50 or 60."
Game 16 for the Lakers, while something less than a work of art--they shot just 46.3% from he field, a wretched 65.7% from the line and failed to break 100 against a team that gives up an average of 116.6 points a game--still was better than what had preceded it.