Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's hotel room was dark and, with the air conditioner turned up, chilled like a crypt. Which was appropriate, because the night before, in Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference finals, Abdul-Jabbar had played in a cold rage after some fans at the HemisFair Arena in San Antonio had taunted him about the fire that had destroyed his Bel Air, Calif. house in January. Now, as he talked about the surprising dominance his Lakers were showing over the San Antonio Spurs, it was as if he was trying to cool some great heat within himself.
"Everybody wants to win," Abdul-Jabbar said, "everybody has that desire. But what's important is knowing how to sustain it without letting the other team throw you off. Sometimes victory is determined by fate, or just by the fact that you're stronger than your opponent. You win because you know what you want to do and you execute it."
And execute is just about what the Lakers did to the Spurs last week. With cold precision and an incendiary fast break, Los Angeles took a 3-1 lead in the series with a 129-121 victory in San Antonio on Sunday in which Abdul-Jabbar, productive as ever, scored 26 points. The Lakers had lost four of five games to the Spurs during the regular season, and in Artis Gilmore, San Antonio had one of the few centers in the league capable of guarding Abdul-Jabbar one-on-one. In addition, the Spurs were eager to avenge last season's 4-0 Western Conference final series loss to L.A. But while Gilmore did a creditable job last week, Abdul-Jabbar was consistently operating on some higher level.
It was a series that figured to turn on individual matchups, and the most intriguing was the one between Abdul-Jabbar and Gilmore. Before the series, Spurs Coach Stan Albeck had tried to relieve some of the pressure on Gilmore by insisting that the backcourt duel between Norm Nixon and Johnny Moore would be decisive, but that was merely a diversionary ploy. If the Spurs were to have any chance against the defending NBA champions, the 7'2", 260-pound Gil-more would have to successfully engage the 7'2", 235-pound Abdul-Jabbar in a physical and psychological slam-dance deep in the low post.
There was sufficient reason to wonder whether Gilmore was equal to that kind of challenge. Though the A Train is the NBA's alltime leading shooter (.593), the Bulls made the playoffs only twice during his six seasons in Chicago. When things went badly, Gilmore had usually gotten most of the blame, and it wasn't surprising that last summer the Bulls shipped him to San Antonio for Forward Mark Olberding and Center Dave Corzine. "Coming here provided a mental lift for him," says Albeck. "All you ever heard about Artis before he got here was the things he couldn't do."
It took Gilmore and high-scoring Guard George (the Iceman) Gervin nearly a third of the season to get used to each other, during which time the Spurs struggled before meshing to win the Midwest Division title. "One of our problems early," Albeck says, "was that Ice would come down, throw it into Artis and say, 'Damn it. Big Fella, go ahead.' Artis didn't know what to do. It was the first time Ice had played with a center of Artis' quality, and he thought if he just pitched it in there, Artis would be Kareem. But Artis just isn't as skilled as Kareem is."
That was obvious after Game 1 in Los Angeles. Gilmore picked up two fouls in less than three minutes as the Lakers repeatedly fed Abdul-Jabbar down low. The Spurs were never much of a threat after that, losing 119-107. Gilmore, who fouled out with 5:18 left in the game, had scored only seven points to Abdul-Jabbar's 30. "This is hurting me," he said later. "I've got to play better." Gilmore likened his game to "jumping into a car and finding out it won't start."
Albeck was so upset with the calls against Gilmore in that game that he drew two technical fouls and got tossed out with 3:53 to play. An excitable man who is known as Stanley Screamer, Albeck has an impressive repertoire of sideline moves, including the highest vertical leap of any white coach in the NBA. Last year, when Albeck was doing one of his routines. Referee Bob Rakel stopped to watch him. "You can talk to me, Stan," Rakel said reproachfully, "and I'll listen to what you have to say. But I'm not going to have you dancing on me." The Lakers had danced up and down on San Antonio in the opener—with Nixon scoring 30 and dealing out eight assists—but the Spurs were about to cut in.
Nothing that had happened in the first game diminished Abdul-Jabbar's respect for Gilmore. "I know that he's going to test me," Abdul-Jabbar said. "He's not a flashy player, but he's very effective. If I don't do my job well, he can make it a very long evening for me. He's done it before." And he did it again in Game 2, scoring 27 points to go with 20 rebounds and five blocked shots. This time it was Abdul-Jabbar who fouled out late in the game as the Spurs won 122-113. Gilmore was able to establish his game early, while the Lakers—perhaps because they were too intent on running—failed to take full advantage of Abdul-Jabbar.
The third quarter of Game 2 was really the only time last week when Gervin was able to fashion any of his Ice sculptures. Scoring on looping finger-roll drives, bank shots and an assortment of floating moves, he hit seven straight baskets and a pair of free throws for 16 points in the period. He finished with 32. "Ice is still Ice," Albeck said. "People forget he's one of the very few people in the league capable of scoring 20 points in a quarter. If he's got the hot hand, everything is directed to him, and all we try to do is milk it as long as we can. He's hunting the ball, and Moore's hunting him."
The only matchup that was consistently hurting the Lakers was at the big forward spot, where Kurt Rambis and Bob McAdoo were getting murdered by the Spurs' Mike Mitchell. McAdoo, who had been a key reserve in last year's drive to the title, gave Los Angeles a big emotional lift in the first game when he returned from a three-month layoff caused by a toe injury. But McAdoo was unable to get his feathery jumper off cleanly—he shot 6 for 19 in the first two games—and even after a 6-for-11 performance in Game 3 he remained frustrated. "Physically, I'm too far behind," the Doo moaned. "It's going to be a struggle."
Before the series began, L.A. Coach Pat Riley had figured that Mitchell's 45-pound weight advantage over sixth-man Michael Cooper meant the Lakers would have to depend on the slower but beefier Rambis to shut Mitchell off. McAdoo's return helped, but in Game 2 Mitchell lit up Los Angeles for 27 points and 16 rebounds. Most alarming to the Lakers was the fact that Mitchell got most of his baskets while San Antonio was running rings around what one Spur now contemptuously called "the vaunted L.A. fast break." The Lakers knew what they had to do to get back on their game as the series moved to San Antonio. "Ice is going to get his points," said Nixon, "but if we can control Mitchell, we can contain their running game."
In Game 3 Mitchell started uncontrollably. He scored 12 points in the first quarter before foul trouble cooled him down, but L.A. still trailed by one at the half, despite having limited Gervin to a single shot in the second quarter and Gilmore to three. Jamaal Wilkes, who was preoccupied with guarding the Iceman, didn't even get off a shot until 4:10 remained in the first quarter, and when he missed it, it appeared as if he were headed for another mediocre shooting performance. He'd been 13 for 32 from the field in the first two games.
In the locker room at halftime, Riley reluctantly decided to start the second half with Cooper on Mitchell, also hoping to inject some life into the Lakers' running game with a trapping, halfcourt defense. The strategy worked immediately; Cooper made two of his five steals that night during the first two minutes of the third quarter, and Wilkes converted three fast-break layups and a pair of free throws in less than five minutes for a 66-57 Los Angeles lead. The Lakers got 19 points during the third period from their running game alone—they would finish with a stunning 51 for the night—and Cooper simply turned the game around with his defensive work. Mitchell was flustered, but impressed. "Whenever I got the ball I felt good," Mitchell said, "but he wouldn't let me have it. If I ran out to get it, he ran out with me. I don't think he even cared about rebounding; he was just assigned to me."
Twice the Spurs seemed to be on the verge of breaking the Lakers' momentum with rallies of their own, but they were repelled. Abdul-Jabbar, who would score 25 points, crushed one surge with a left-handed jump skyhook when San Antonio drew to within three with 8:07 left in the third period. Then when the Spurs were within seven points with 2:04 left, Nixon drilled a three-pointer as the shot clock expired. Cooper followed with a three-point play off the most scintillating fast break of the evening—the ball going from Cooper to Magic Johnson to Nixon to Cooper without ever touching the floor. "That stretch," Cooper said, "reminded me of the four games we played the Spurs last year." Wilkes also regained his shooting touch, hitting 11 of 21 from the field (he would bang home 12 of 19 in Game 4) for 26 points.
Moore had been able to hold his own against Nixon through the first two games, after having been dominated so thoroughly by him last season that the Lakers began calling him "Johnny Nixon," as if he were Norman's son. But in Game 3 Moore was horrendous, failing to get the ball to Gilmore (13 shots) and Gervin (12) while shooting 4 for 18 himself. "When that happens," Mitchell said, "it makes us think, why ain't Ice getting the ball?" Nixon, meanwhile, had 22 points and 11 assists, and Moore had to leave the game because of a bruised left calf muscle.
Nixon added 13 points in Game 4, bringing his average for the series to 23.2 points, and Johnson scored 31 and had 17 assists. Gervin had another subpar game, shooting 9 for 22 from the field for 20 points. "We thought we could get two out of this home stand," Mitchell had said. San Antonio got two all right—in its face.