The Denver Nuggets needed a miracle. They had lost their leading scorer, Alex English, with a broken thumb in the third period and now, with the score tied 116-116 and 47 seconds left in Game 4 of their Western Conference final series against the Lakers on Sunday, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was launching a skyhook. If it went down, the Nuggets would likely face an all-but-insurmountable 3-1 deficit. But miracles do happen. The shot missed. Then Abdul-Jabbar followed and missed again. And then he missed again. James Worthy tipped and missed. Magic Johnson missed twice. Michael Cooper fired from point-blank range—and missed. Finally, 27 frantic seconds after Abdul-Jabbar's first try, Worthy got the ball yet again. He put it in the basket and the Nuggets out of their misery.
The Lakers won 120-116 and went back to L.A., where they hoped to clinch their fourth consecutive appearance in the NBA finals, the most by any team since the Celtics dynasty of 1957-66.
"There's no comparison between this year's Laker team and last year's," says Denver coach Doug Moe. "They're 10 times better than last year. They're tougher mentally, and physically they're playing better." That became apparent in Game 1, as Denver shot 54%, scored 122 points and still lost by 17, 139-122, after trailing by as many as 36. When the hammering ended, Moe tried to remain upbeat. "I went into the locker room and said, 'Fellas, isn't it great to be alive?' Then I checked to make sure we were."
In their victories, the Lakers scored points in thunderous clusters off their running game. In the first quarter of Game 1 they hit 13 straight shots on their way to an 80-point half. In Game 3, a 136-118 Laker romp, they went 8 for 8 at the start of the second period and 5 for 5 early in the third to open an 18-point advantage. "It's bad enough you've got to try and stop Kareem and Worthy inside," says Moe. "Now they're so bleeping tough from outside it seems like they hit every shot they take." A few of them almost did. Worthy shot a tasty 70% in the first four games while averaging 22 points, and Byron Scott led L.A. in scoring with 24 points per game while shooting 69%, mostly from long range.
Denver had little chance against that kind of gunnery. "You know you gotta play your best, and then hope," Moe said. "Even then, you gotta hope a lot." By playing their best in Game 2, the Nuggets won 136-114, as English, swaddling each move in velvet, scored 40 points.
The Lakers, on the other hand, resembled crushed velvet. "They were pushing it down our throats," said Worthy, "and that shocked us a little." The Lakers' vulnerability to playoff shock treatment has been the team's only apparent weakness the past two seasons. During last year's championship series with the Celtics, L.A. was clearly shaken by Boston's physical and psychological bullying tactics. The Lakers seem determined not to let it happen again. Why, there was Abdul-Jabbar climbing on Danny Schayes's back in the fourth quarter of Game 2. For a strange moment Kareem appeared to be the world's tallest jockey.
Danny, by former NBA great Dolph, out of Naomi Schayes, went in with 10:43 to play and the Nuggets ahead by five. Soon he found himself in a shoving match with Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem was floundering through a 4-for-16 shooting night; he took out his frustration on Schayes with an elbow. On the Nuggets' bench, Moe flapped an elbow furiously at the officials, who called a technical foul on Abdul-Jabbar. "I almost got airborne on that one," Moe said.
Less than a minute after that, Kareem again bumped Schayes violently, causing Schayes's elbow to catch Johnson on the jaw. Johnson chased Schayes upcourt and grabbed him by the arms, whereupon Abdul-Jabbar started sizing up Schayes for a saddle. The two of them went down in a heap, with Abdul-Jabbar giving the whip hand to his mount's face while asking, "How does it feel to have your eyes gouged out?" Abdul-Jabbar was ejected from the game and later refused to discuss the incident publicly, but two days later Schayes told a caller on a Denver radio show that the whole affair had been misunderstood. "What really happened," Schayes explained, "was Magic grabbed my arm and said, 'Big party at my place after the game. But whatever you do, don't tell Kareem.' Just then Kareem came running up, and I guess he got pretty upset about it."
The Lakers seemed eager to get a message to Boston. "The rap on us is that you can distract us by getting physical with us," said L.A. coach Pat Riley. "We play the game the way it's supposed to be played, but we're going to defend ourselves." Worthy, too, was talking tough. "Now that we know that's how people like to play against us, we can't take a step back from anybody."
True to his word, when Worthy felt Bill Hanzlik was being too aggressive in Game 3, he planted a suggestive elbow in Hanzlik's face. Then the Lakers, who had been called "candybutts" who "eat quiche" in a Denver newspaper column, ran off to a 136-118 victory. When Abdul-Jabbar was asked afterward about the quiche remark, he replied, "It looks like we ate a few Nuggets out there, too."
True, the Nuggets were a lot harder to swallow Sunday, but with English out and forward Calvin Natt hobbling on a crippled right knee, they would probably be easy pickings for L.A. in Game 5.