It was past midnight in San Antonio last Friday, and nothing was moving on the streets that you couldn't step on. Inside the Palm Terrace, the lounge lizards were staring sullenly into their banana daiquiris, cursing the Spurs' luck, as Norman Nixon put down his glass and moved slowly across the barroom floor. Nixon is ferociously quick as the starting point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, but now he was taking his time as he sauntered past a table of admiring women, crossed a makeshift bandstand and eased behind a set of drums.
Two of Nixon's companions had already positioned themselves at a nearby piano and bass, and at a table not far away, L.A. Forward Bob McAdoo noisily insisted that he wanted to play the saxophone, which seemed ridiculous because there was no saxophone. Just as Nixon was about to give the downbeat, the manager of the joint told Nixon to leave his instruments alone. Nixon was crestfallen. "And there I was just about to get down," he said. "Tonight was my night to make beautiful music."
Ah, but when you play for the Lakers, every night is your night to make beautiful music, every game another sweet song. Last week, in four well-orchestrated performances, the Lakers dispatched San Antonio in the NBA's Western Conference finals. Los Angeles put on so stunning a display of artistry and firepower that the question now isn't "Can the Lakers be beaten in a seven-game series?" but "Will they ever lose again?" Saturday's 128-123 victory over the Spurs at San Antonio's HemisFair Arena not only completed a 4-0 rout of the Midwest Division champions but, coupled with L.A.'s sweep in the conference semifinal series against Phoenix, it also marked the first time any NBA team had ever gone 4-0 in consecutive four-game series. The Lakers are now 8-0 in the playoffs and haven't lost a game since April 13. When L.A. swingman Michael Cooper was asked last Saturday whether he would prefer Boston or Philadelphia in the championship series, Cooper said, "The way we're playing, we can get anybody. Bring on the Harlem Globetrotters."
The Lakers displayed such confidence against both Phoenix and San Antonio it was difficult to believe that this was just about the same team that had been eliminated by Houston in a mini-series last year, or that these were the Lakers whose current season had begun under such bizarre circumstances. "Last year, losing the mini-series was like growing pains," says Forward Jamaal Wilkes. "There was a lot of public pointing of fingers, but we've put our problems aside." Says Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, "Last year Jamaal had a really terrible playoff and that affected us. This year we've got everybody playing at a very high level of intensity all at once."
That isn't how the Lakers started out the season. Los Angeles was 2-4 at one point and struggling with a new offense that relied too heavily on Abdul-Jabbar and not heavily enough on the Lakers' ability to run. Following the 11th game, a 113-110 victory over the Jazz in Salt Lake City, Magic Johnson stormed out of the Lakers' dressing room and said he wanted to be traded.
Coach Paul Westhead was fired a day later, and owner Jerry Buss held a press conference at which he tried to give the job to ex-Laker great Jerry West. West, however, insisted he didn't want to be head coach again, and somehow, in all the confusion, Pat Riley, who had been Westhead's assistant, walked away with the job. "I knew things would get better after that," Abdul-Jabbar says. "After all the confusion and recriminations, they couldn't get any worse."
Riley quickly opened up the Lakers' game, encouraging Nixon, Johnson and Cooper to run the ball at every opportunity. "Riley's not getting near the credit he deserves after all this," said Spurs Coach Stan Albeck last week. "That situation was chaotic when he took over, a real zoo. Pat knows he's got talented men, and he's letting them play the way they want to play."
Going into the postseason, Riley wanted more aggressive and opportunistic defensive play, his theory being that if the Laker defense could create enough steals, turnovers and missed shots, the running game would take care of itself. Los Angeles finished the regular season 15th in the league in defense and second in offense, so Riley figured if the Lakers could keep the Spurs pinned down often enough, Nixon and Johnson—with 1,395 assists between them this season—would bang the drum loudly on offense. "I hope we can disprove the theory that playoff basketball is a halfcourt game," Riley said. "I think teams do that because they get too conservative."
In the Spurs, Los Angeles faced a team no less eager to shoot the ball. Led by George Gervin, the magnificent Iceman, and Forward Mike Mitchell, San Antonio had a lineup that seemed well suited to slowing the Lakers down. In fact, the Spurs were the only conference team to beat them in a regular-season series, three games to two. Gervin led the league in scoring, averaging 32.3 points a game, and Mitchell, who had been acquired from Cleveland at midseason, was averaging 20.5 and seven rebounds. He had 25 points in Game 1 in Los Angeles, and Gervin finished with 34, but neither was especially effective when San Antonio needed them. McAdoo scored 21 points off the bench to go with Abdul-Jabbar's 32 and Nixon's 31. Albeck said the Spurs would have to "find an answer to McAdoo" if they were to do anything in the series, but in the first game they didn't have a clue and were beaten 128-117.
Last Tuesday night, also at the Forum, the Spurs again fell behind quickly, only to rally in the second and third periods. San Antonio actually led 79-78 going into the fourth quarter, but then the Lakers began to run again, the fast break feeding off the Spurs' misses as 10 of their first 11 shots went awry. With Forward Kurt Rambis having one of the best games of his life (15 rebounds, eight points), the Lakers ran San Antonio down 110-101. "It may not happen in the first period," Riley said, "or even the second, but somewhere along the line the fast break is going to pay off. The other team is going to crack and you're going to have a spurt."
The Lakers alternated Wilkes and Cooper on Gervin, and in Game 2 he was held to just seven of 21 from the field and 18 points. "What's winning the games for us right now is defense," Cooper said. "When one of us gets beat, the rotation begins and everybody else helps out."
In Game 3 on Friday night at San Antonio, the Spurs fell behind by 15 points in the second quarter, then pulled to within seven midway through the third. At that point Nixon and Cooper began to ram the ball up the middle of the floor, widening the gap from seven to 14 points in two minutes and 44 seconds. Gervin finally popped loose for 39 points, but the Lakers had devoured every loose ball and turned them into easy baskets. "They shoot more layups than any team that's ever played the game," said San Antonio Assistant Coach Morris McHone.
Albeck was sick over what was happening to his team, but he couldn't help admiring the Lakers' fast break. "I don't know if any of the great Boston teams back in the '60s and '70s ever advanced the ball this quickly," he said. "We've tried everything—keeping two men back, going to the offensive boards, slowing it down—everything the book says you're supposed to do, and still we couldn't stop them."
One reason the Lakers' running game is so effective is that there are a lot of people who can execute it. "We've got a unique situation here," explained Nixon, who popped for 30 in the clincher, "in that we've got two guys [he and Johnson] who can take the middle and create something. And each of us runs a different kind of break, creates a different set of problems for the defense. Magic takes it right to the hoop even on big guys, and if he misses the shot he'll tip it in. I'm a jump shooter, and teams know that even when I'm running they have to come up on me." Which leaves plenty of room for the wing men, whistling down the sidelines for dunks, layups and, in Cooper's case, the terrifying Coop-a-Loop thunderdunk. "I really don't feel any team in the NBA can run with us," says Cooper.
The Spurs tried again on Saturday, but when Gervin (38 points) fouled out with 6:11 to play, he took what remained of San Antonio's hopes with him. McAdoo was almost beyond belief in the final game, hitting 12 of 16 shots for 26 points, to go with eight rebounds and three blocked shots. He also stole an inbounds pass and dunked in the final seconds.
"They've a lot of ammo over there," said San Antonio Forward Mark Olberding. "We would have had to play the best series ever to even stay with them. That's how good they were."
What remains to be seen is if that's really how good they are. And how good they can be against Boston or Philadelphia. Maybe the best ever.