Just when it looked as if Someone Up There had decided to handicap the Laker season by taking their players one at a time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Mike Smrek returned from the flu.
So the Lakers handicapped it, themselves, in the traditional way. Friday night at the Forum, they spotted another big underdog, the Jazz, a 15-minute head start and a 17-point lead and then saw how long it took to get it back.
Answer: 18 minutes, by mid-third quarter.
Then the Jazz hung in for a while before the Lakers polished it off, 112-105. Magic Johnson broke a 105-105 tie with a three-point play, scored the last nine Laker points, finished with a team-high 27 plus 17 assists and the Laker winning streak was up to 9 games and 33 of 36.
So what did the winningest coach in basketball tell his charges?
Nice comeback, guys?
Whatever is was, it took 12 minutes before the dressing room opened.
"We just haven't been coming ready to play," said Pat Riley, eschewing compliments about the comeback.
"I don't know what the problem is. Maybe we're bored with winning right now. Maybe I need to make a little change in the rotation. . . . It seems we have to get down double- digits to start playing the game.
"Winning sometimes isn't enough. You've got to kick your game up to a higher level."
Riley also called his team's defense in the first half things like "passive" and "non-existent." Whatever it was, the Mailman, Karl Malone, showed up for his appointed rounds and walked all over it, beating A.C. Green, Mychal Thompson and Kurt Rambis for 20 points and 8 rebounds by halftime. Before the second period was two minutes old, the Jazz led, 43-26.
So what else was new? The Lakers had been down double- digits during their latest winning streak to the Bullets, Clippers, Pistons, Hawks, Spurs and Nuggets.
They rallied all those other times, and to no one's surprise, they rallied this time, too. The Jazz lead was down to 62-55 by halftime and disappeared entirely in the third period, as Byron Scott scored 13 points to lead the comeback. But Jazz back-up center Mel Turpin kept lugging his beer belly into the low post and hitting jump hooks and whatever else he took. Turpin had 22 by the end of the third period, and the Jazz was hanging on to a 90-89 lead.
Not for long, though. Wes Matthews hit consecutive three-pointers out of each corner, and the Lakers had the lead for good.
It was only a small lead, 104-103, however when Thurl Bailey made two free throws with 2:47 left. Abdul-Jabbar missed two hook shots on the next possession, and the Jazz got the ball back with a chance to take the lead. There, Ricky Green bounced the ball off the foot of the Mailman, who was posting up low. Johnson was fouled on a fast break and made one of two free throws.
At the other end, John Stockton hit a 12-footer, tying it, 105-105, with 1:34 left.
The Lakers cleared a side for Johnson, working on Darrell Griffith. Griffith bumped him as he turned into the lane, and Johnson fired off a 10-foot hook as he started soaring toward mid-court, secure in the knowledge he'd been fouled. The ball fell, so did his free throw and it was 108-105.
The Mailman missed a seven-foot jump hook. The Lakers rebounded and Johnson hit a 16-foot push shot. Ballgame.
For good measure, after the Jazz missed their shots, Magic made two more free throws to send everyone home happy, give or take a coach.
Behind a Laker-San Antonio Spurs deal that didn't happen: A source confirms that the teams were agreed on Billy Thompson for Mike Mitchell. The hang-up? Owner Jerry Buss reportedly wouldn't go for Mitchell's $750,000 salary, whether the contract was restructured or not. . . . Why would the Lakers trade a 24-year-old with a lot of potential for a 32-year-old one year out of a drug rehabilitation? 1) Mitchell is a proven scorer, with a 20.8 average for his first eight seasons; 2) the Lakers are thought to be leaning toward protecting back-up center Mike Smrek along with Michael Cooper, Mychal Thompson and their starting five in the upcoming expansion draft, so they stand to lose Billy Thompson anyway.