LANDOVER, Md. — It's supposed to be a superpower summit, National Basketball Assn. style. But at the rate the Lakers and the Boston Celtics are being disarmed by the rest of the league, their meeting Friday night in Boston may have all the excitement of a Nancy Reagan-Raisa Gorbachev tea party.
While the Celtics had their heads handed to them at home by the Denver Nuggets Wednesday night, the Lakers careened off the road for the third time in four stops on this trip, losing to the Washington Bullets in overtime, 120-112.
It was their fourth defeat in the last five games.
"I don't know if the league is catching up, or it's us," said Magic Johnson, who had 30 points and 14 assists but who with two seconds left in regulation missed a shot that could have successfully completed a Laker comeback from 15 points down.
"I really won't know until Friday," Johnson said. "Usually by this time in the season, our game with them (the Celtics) is a teller. Usually, we've killed everybody else and they've killed everybody. But this season is really strange."
It's downright mondo bizarro to see the Lakers expire with such regularity to teams that are having trouble taking the measure of anybody else in short pants. As one reporter observed, the only team to lose to the Lakers on this trip--the New Jersey Nets--fired the coach the next day.
The Bullets came into Wednesday's game with a 4-12 record, had lost four straight, and looked so lousy in a 24-point loss to the Knicks the night before that owner Abe Pollin called a closed-door meeting with the players before they took the court Wednesday.
But before anyone could line up Washington Coach Kevin Loughery in front of the same firing squad that took out Dave Wohl of the Nets, Moses Malone and John Williams scored six points apiece in overtime, while the Lakers squeezed in four turnovers in five minutes.
Three of those turnovers were committed by Michael Cooper, who also missed two free throws with the Lakers down by two, 104-102, with 1:35 left.
Cooper atoned in part for those misses when Moses Malone reacted to Laker triple-teaming by firing a pass into Cooper's hands. He then triggered a Laker fast break that resulted in Magic Johnson's game-tying layup with 1:09 to go.
But when the Lakers had a chance to get the jump on the Bullets in overtime--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a couple of steps on the pack and an open court in front of him--Cooper threw the pass away, leading to a pair of free throws by Moses Malone.
That mistake was compounded a couple moments later, when Cooper attempted to in-bound the ball to Abdul-Jabbar, only to have Darrell Walker intercept. Williams scored on the other end to make it 112-108, and the Lakers were never in a position to tie again.
After the game, Cooper was absent from the Laker dressing room when reporters entered. A highly placed official, however, discounted the rumor that the Laker guard had applied for asylum in the Soviet Union.
The Gorbachevs, incidentally, did not include the Capital Centre in their travel plans. Even for the Soviets, apparently, the novelty of seeing 7-foot 6-inch Manute Bol and 5-foot 3-inch Muggsy Bogues on the same court has worn off.
It would be misleading, however, to lay this loss solely in Cooper's lap. The Lakers, as has been their custom recently, put themselves in the position of having to play catch-up, and backed off from the physical play of Moses Malone (26 points and 9 rebounds) and forward Terry Catledge, who had a season-high 19 points and 15 rebounds.
Neither could the Lakers contain the outside sniping of Jeff Malone (29 points) and Bernard King (18 off the bench).
Fourteen first-quarter points by James Worthy, making his first start in nearly two weeks, had the Lakers even with the Bullets after one, 34-34, but they never lead again after 41-40 and were down, 86-71, with 3:17 to go in the third quarter.
"That's not like the Lakers," said Mychal Thompson. "They usually pounced on you right away, got you with their defense. That's what we have to get back."
Trying to pounce on Bogues, however, conjures images of the old elephant-mouse routine. Bogues, the rookie whose erratic play had led some to dub him Muggsy Bogus, ignited the Washington comeback with seven assists in the first half.
"In the open court, there's nobody better," Johnson said, "because he's so small. You'll be looking for him, but he hides behind everybody, and before you know it, he's behind you.
"He did a wonderful job for them, especially in the first two quarters. He got them back."
Laker Coach Pat Riley, meanwhile, is left to wonder when he's going to get his team back to where he guaranteed they would be. He even wondered aloud if the Lakers might not be immune from repeat-itis, that epidemic that has afflicted past champions since 1969.
"Maybe it's such a powerful disease that there's no antidote, nothing," Riley said.