DENVER — Three perennial losers settled some scores Thursday night, scores that had roots not only on the basketball court but on the playground and in the clothes closet as well.
For Nugget forward Jay Vincent, it started all the way back in grade school in East Lansing, Mich., where he would have been a local legend except for one Magic mite named Johnson.
For Nugget Coach Doug Moe, it continued on the fashion lists, where Pat Riley got billing on GQ's best-dressed list while Moe ended up in the all-slob category.
And for the Nuggets, it was as fresh as the embarrassment of last spring's playoffs, when Moe conceded his team didn't have a chance and his players proved it, dropping three straight games by an average of 27 points.
How sweet it was, then, for the Nuggets Thursday night when Michael Adams' two free throws with two seconds left gave Denver a 115-113 victory over the Lakers before a sellout crowd of 17,022 at McNichols Arena.
The loss was only the Lakers' second in their last 19 games, and Denver ended a 10-game losing streak to the Lakers that dates back two season.
"I knew my team last year," Moe said, "and I knew we weren't any good. This year, I know we're a good team, capable of beating anyone on any given night."
With Vincent scoring a game-high 23 points, including five in the last 1:35, and the Lakers dissolving in confusion with the score tied, 113-113, the Nuggets found the means to win when Adams drove past Byron Scott, went up for a shot surrounded by Lakers, and Cooper was called for a foul.
"He made a good play," Cooper said. "He penetrated, and I came over to contest the shot. I didn't think I got him."
In other words, someone suggested, it was hardly a savage foul.
"If it was a savage foul," Cooper said, "his head would have been rolling on the floor."
According to Moe, the whistle almost always blows the other way when the Nuggets play the Lakers.
"Against the Lakers, it's always tougher for me to be objective," he said. "I always feel they're getting the best of it. They expect every call.
"Hey, you can be sure he got fouled. They ain't calling nothing against the Lakers at that point unless they practically kill a guy."
Vincent, who came with Adams from the Washington Bullets in a trade just before the season, did the killing Thursday. He missed the Nuggets' last game with the Lakers in November because of a sore Achilles' tendon, and was relishing the prospect of facing his former playground rival while being surrounded by a new cast.
"You have to understand something," said Magic Johnson, whose fifth triple-double of the season (18 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds) couldn't prevent a loss.
"It's been me against Jay all our lives--in grade school, in junior high, in high school, in recreation leagues. My teams would beat Jay's teams, and then in one-on-one in rec leagues, it was always me against Jay.
"We were always pitted against each other--Jay vs. Earvin, going at each other. My school on the South Side, his on the East Side. He became tired of that. He never got the publicity he deserved."
While Vincent basked in some deserved attention Thursday, Johnson was left to wonder about the breakdown in communication that caused him to take a rushed sky hook from a tough angle with the 24-second clock running down. Bill Hanzlik grabbed the rebound, and the Nuggets called time out to set up the game-winning play.
"The guys thought it was one play, and I called another," said Johnson, who called a play known as "3-Up" only to see his teammates react as if he had called "2-Up."
"I called it again," Johnson said, "but by that time, the (24-second) clock was down to six seconds, and by the time I got the ball, it was down to three."
"I guess my finger didn't go up all the way," Johnson said. "There was a lot of confusion."
Scott may have been momentarily distracted, too, on Adams' decisive drive.
"I heard Riles (Riley) hollering something, and I was trying to hear if he wanted me to shade Adams to one side or another," said Scott, who started off hot with a dozen first-quarter points and finished with 18 points, but missed an open 10-footer from the baseline that might have put this one away, because the Lakers were leading, 111-108.
"When I turned around," Scott said, "he'd already made his little move."
The Lakers made a strong move early, opening a 14-point first-quarter lead on the strength of 70.8% shooting, including 6 for 6 by Scott.
But the Nuggets, fueled by a couple of steals by Lafayette (Fat) Lever, took a 61-57 halftime lead on the strength of a 24-7 surge. The Nuggets' lead was 93-88 at the end of three quarters.
The Denver comeback also turned on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's problems with: (a) the high altitude, (b) fouls--he had 5 in 28 minutes--and (c) Hanzlik, who at 6 feet 7 inches gave away 7 inches to Abdul-Jabbar.
Hanzlik had nine points and as many rebounds (eight) as Abdul-Jabbar, while helping limit the Laker center to 14 points.