The Lakers were both lucky and good Sunday afternoon. Or if you prefer, good and lucky, which, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said, isn't such a bad combination.
"If you work hard, you make your own luck," Abdul-Jabbar said. "It's just desire."
Call it desire, call it luck. The Lakers were just glad that the referees did not call a foul on a play that decided their 120-116 victory and enabled them to take a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets.
In the Lakers' wildest game of these National Basketball Assn. playoffs, James Worthy came up with a rebound and scored the winning basket with 20 seconds left to end one of the strangest sequences he'd ever seen.
"But then, I didn't see too much that time either," Worthy said.
On that single possession, the Lakers missed their first four shots but managed to come up with the ball every time. Worthy finally finished it when he took down Michael Cooper's miss and put the ball back in the basket for a 118-116 lead.
Abdul-Jabbar had missed twice, Worthy once and Cooper once before Worthy came up with what proved to be the winning basket.
"Pure helter-skelter," Cooper said.
Afterward, when Laker Coach Pat Riley had gotten over consecutive Nugget three-pointers that had tied the game at 116-116 in the last minute, he still had trouble sorting out what had happened.
"Who made the last shot?" Riley asked. "Worthy?"
Yes, and it was a good thing, too, because all five Lakers were attacking the backboard, and that meant no one was back to defend had Denver rebounded the ball cleanly.
The Nuggets had one more chance at tying the game, but Abdul-Jabbar knocked the ball away from Danny Schayes and Byron Scott (26 points) ended the suspense with two free throws with five seconds left.
Denver's chances in this series may have ended earlier. Alex English left the game in the third quarter when he injured his right hand, the same one that had produced 28 points in 26 minutes.
The injury apparently occurred when English grabbed Abdul-Jabbar by the arm and Abdul-Jabbar shook loose. "After that, he was gone," Abdul-Jabbar said.
The diagnosis was that English had a multiple fracture of his thumb. He underwent surgery Sunday night. That wasn't good news for the Nuggets or their coach, Doug Moe.
"I knew he was a goner," Moe said. "We kissed him goodby."
And so, it seems almost time to kiss the Nuggets goodby, too.
Add Dan Issel's bruised thigh and Calvin Natt's sore knee to English's broken thumb and it's easy to see that the Nuggets may be one game away from the end of their season.
Neither Issel nor English were on the floor when the Lakers crashed the backboards and broke Moe's heart.
"It was one of the most frustrating sequences in my basketball career," said Moe, whose next frustration may be Wednesday night in the Forum, where the Lakers can end the series.
Moe is sure that English is out for the rest of the playoffs. If so, Worthy said the Nuggets are really in trouble.
"I wouldn't say it was all over for them, but they don't win too many games without him," he said.
The Lakers, meanwhile, won a game almost in spite of themselves. They shook off 15 first-half turnovers, six of them by Magic Johnson, and didn't get much of a lead until English went out.
Abdul-Jabbar, who had 29 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 blocked shots, scored twice for a four-point lead that grew to 116-110 with 2:12 remaining after Worthy dropped in a a jumper over Natt.
But the Nuggets tied the game on three-point shots by Elston Turner and Mike Evans, the second with 1:01 to play.
"It looked like we had control, then they stuck two daggers in our heart," Riley said.
The Lakers revived themselves quickly on their next possession, the one from which the Nuggets may never recover this season.
Referees Darell Garretson and Joey Crawford did not call any fouls on the play, even though several players on both sides hit the floor and each other in pursuit of the bouncing ball.
"Nobody got away with anything flagrant," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Besides, who were they (the officials) going to pick out? There was a lot of contact."
At least eight players had contact with the basketball during the sequence, but no one really had a clear shot at it except the Lakers, who kept missing and getting the ball back.
"It was unbelievable," Johnson said. "Guys were slipping and falling--everybody was flyin' everywhere. It was great."
The Nuggets weren't quite so pleased. But even Moe could find no fault with the officials for not calling a foul.
"You don't expect a call at that time," he said. "The Lakers were leaping all over us, but if we had been on their backs, we wouldn't have been expecting a call either."