The NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, the team with the best record in the league this season, found themselves in deep trouble Sunday—on the road and trailing two games to one to the Utah Jazz in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. Nobody could have foreseen the Lakers' predicament, or that so many people, including even L.A. coach Pat Riley, would suddenly be expressing doubts about the size of the champs' hearts.
This is an article from the May 23, 1988 issue
Los Angeles, however, managed to pull back from the brink with a 113-100 Game 4 win in Salt Lake City, tying the best-of-seven series and silencing at least some of the talk. The day before, Riley had remarked that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy weren't providing an effort equal to their teammates' and wondered aloud about the Lakers' collective resolve. But on Sunday, Abdul-Jabbar scored 20 points, Johnson 24 and Worthy 29, and each played with a frisky willfulness. "The obituary that was written for the top three was obviously premature," said Riley, the man who had practically penned it in the first place.
For Utah, Game 4 was an opportunity lost. The Jazz held a 65-56 lead with 9:06 left in the third quarter but then got into foul trouble, began to rush shots and quickly transformed the frenzied Salt Palace into a tabernacle of gloom. "We were trying to throw a knockout punch," said coach Frank Layden. "Instead, we hurt ourselves." There was a less dreary way to look at the defeat: Utah was trying to win four games against the Lakers, a feat it had barely accomplished in four seasons. "All of a sudden, we're the Boston Celtics or something?" asked Jazz playmaker John Stockton. "The Lakers played very well."
Or they just played like the fast-breaking Lakers, something they hadn't done since blasting the Jazz 110-91 in Game 1 at the Forum. During the press conference after that blowout, Layden did an odd thing. Possibly facing the embarrassment of a four-game sweep, he picked up a battery of microphones and, working the room like a Catskills comedian, launched into a stand-up routine that covered everything from Tom Lasorda's restaurant to his sisters' hand-me-downs. In a part of the act that almost seemed scripted, he also said, "I don't think we can beat the Lakers. If we could do that, I'm wasting my time. I should really be beatified."
Layden's shtick rubbed the Jazz faithful raw, but it seemed to relax his players and lower L.A.'s guard. At the forefront of Utah's rapid revival were its immovable object, 7'4", 290-pound center Mark Eaton, and its irresistible force, forward Karl (Mailman) Malone. In winning Game 2 (101-97 on May 10 in L.A.) and Game 3 (96-89 in Utah last Friday), the Jazz's tough defense limited the Lakers to 41.3% shooting from the floor—or those parts of the floor that Eaton's bulk didn't occupy. "He's 7'4" and wide as a city block," says Laker guard Michael Cooper. "You can't go over him, you can't go around him. He can be devastating."
Utah's defensive scheme was to funnel opponents into the paint, its garden of Eaton, where Eaton, a red-bearded, 31-year-old former car mechanic, blocked shots, altered others and caused second thoughts to fester. Abdul-Jabbar had to deal with all of that, and he wasn't coping well. He had a 3-for-13 shooting performance in Game 2 and was 3 for 14 in Game 3. (His backup, Mychal Thompson, was 8 for 28 in the two games.) "Kareem's worrying about Eaton too much," said Magic after Game 3. "He's not shooting as easily as he usually does," added Worthy. "He's got to take his shot up stronger," suggested guard Byron Scott.
Eaton, the runner-up to Chicago's Michael Jordan as the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, knew that neither his own deeds (15 blocks in the first three games) nor Abdul-Jabbar's age (41) nor the altitude (4,300 feet in Salt Lake City) would bottle up his fellow UCLA alumnus forever. "He's been shooting that skyhook on me for six years," said Eaton. "I've seen too many of them go in." Abdul-Jabbar shrugged off talk of Eaton on Friday—"I don't think he bothered me," he said—but later acknowledged another source of annoyance: His mother had called to see if he was ill. "She was disturbed, and I don't need that," he said.
Malone, the 6'9", 250-pound power forward who was at his body-blasting best in the two wins, scoring 29 points in each game and averaging 11.5 rebounds after a slow start in Game 1, presented other difficulties for the Lakers. Popping soft turnarounds from the perimeter, muscling in one-handers from the low post or crashing through the lane as a trailer on the break, the Mailman was delivering with stunning versatility. He was also providing an emotional note for the mostly monotone Jazz, pumping his fists and flexing his muscles. As he described the Friday win, "It was physical. It was nice."
To expand on that small glimpse into Malone's psyche, consider how he spent the afternoon between Games 3 and 4: He took his buddy Paul Smith to a pet store to pick up live rats to feed his pet monitor, Hank. At the store, Malone asked an employee to serve a demonstration lunch to three monitors—"Something with some fight," he urged—and watched with his nose to the glass cage as the foot-long lizards battled for five minutes over two rats before devouring them. "A tug of war!" Malone said, delighted. "Karl," said Smith, "something is wrong with you."
While Malone was re-creating Wild Kingdom, Riley was abandoning practice in favor of an hour-long pep talk. After the Game 2 loss, he was upset with the Jazz; he sent a game film to the league office that showed Utah allegedly playing an illegal defense 21 times. After the loss of Game 3 (in which each club received a warning for playing zone), he was disgusted with his Lakers. "We've got to put the jets on," Riley said. "I just don't know if there's any fuel in there."
Riley's main culprit seemed to be Johnson, whom he benched for five minutes of the second quarter of Game 3, an unprecedented move in the playoffs with the Lakers trailing. Before the tip-off, Magic had sidled over to Utah superfan John (Suds) Sudbury and confessed that his injured groin was paining him so much he could use a transplant. Johnson, who finished with 16 points, 6 assists and no rebounds, was outplayed by Stockton (22, 12 and 4), and his failure to ignite the break left Worthy's game (9 points) out of gear. Johnson's explanation: "We didn't respect [the Jazz], and they took it to us."
Utah usually prefers to run, but Layden decided on a strategy using a slower tempo, which helped the Jazz in a couple of ways. First, it put increased emphasis on half-court play, which enhances Eaton's value as a lane-clogger and shot-swatter. And it made it less likely that Layden would have to deploy his reserves (sweet-shooting Thurl Bailey, the sixth man, being the main exception).
Riley had hinted at a shake-up for Game 4, and he made a couple of minor changes, starting A.C. Green ahead of Kurt Rambis at power forward and using Johnson instead of Scott to guard Stockton. The Lakers' more substantial switch was the one to the "on" position, as Johnson created fast-break chances, Worthy drove with daring, and Abdul-Jabbar hit two of his first three shots. Still, Utah's efficiency was a match for L.A.'s, and when guard Bob Hansen nailed a three-pointer to give the Jazz their 65-56 lead, the Lakers' hopes of repeating seemed finished.
But soon Hansen and Eaton left the game, each with his fourth foul, and Utah's woeful bench did it in. The Jazz's nine-point lead dissolved as the Lakers went on a 23-9 run the rest of the third quarter before Layden could get the backups out. Not the least of Utah's problems was the Los Angeles defense, which had been obscured by the Lakers' offensive collapse in Games 2 and 3. It held the Jazz to 36.8% shooting in the second half as Utah's legs sagged and its jumpers fell short. Abdul-Jabbar proved to be L.A.'s defensive anchor, blocking three shots to Eaton's one and leading the Lakers with 11 rebounds.
"We let one get away," lamented Malone, who scored 29 points for the fourth straight game. As the momentum and the series swung back to Los Angeles for Game 5 on Tuesday, it was clear the Jazz's fragile chances hinged on retightened defense—L.A. shot 52.4% on Sunday—and untightened psyches. For two games, however, it took the underestimated Jazz to remind L.A. of the fine line between running and losing.