There was something in the air Thursday night at the Forum, something besides the anticipation of the playoffs: Seat cushions. Scores of them.
With exactly 54 seconds left in the 80th game of the season, several dozen seat cushions given away as a promotion were flung from the stands onto the floor.
Why? Simple. Those fans must have figured the Lakers didn’t have enough of a cushion. Actually, they did.
When the cushions became airborne, the Lakers led the Houston Rockets by three points, which turned out to be more than adequate in a 117-113 victory.
In the safety of the Laker locker room, Pat Riley said the cushions had a message on the back. “Throw when you think the Lakers have won,” Riley joked.
Not until after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s left-handed tip-in of a missed shot did the Lakers look like winners. Abdul-Jabbar’s basket put the Lakers ahead, 113-110, a margin that seemed a lot safer when Ralph Sampson missed a three-pointer a few seconds later.
Although the shot missed, several of the cushions didn’t. Rocket Hank McDowell caught one with his hands, while Rocket Coach Bill Fitch caught one on his head.
Abdul-Jabbar, who caused the whole incident with his late tip-in, was surprised by the actions of the normally laid-back Forum crowd.
“That’s not their usual demeanor,” he said.
But Abdul-Jabbar was his usual self when the game was to be decided. The tip-in was only his second basket of the fourth quarter, but Abdul-Jabbar also came up with an equally important defensive play a little earlier.
The Lakers led, 111-110, with 1:22 left when Abdul-Jabbar poked the ball away from Sampson on a pass from Robert Reid.
“That one was what really killed us,” said Fitch, who also thought that Sampson’s three-point attempt wasn’t the best shot the Rockets could have taken.
“If we’d had our druthers, we would have preferred another shot, but sometimes that happens in the last two minutes,” he said. “If Ralph is in that situation in Game 7 (of a playoff series), I’ve got every confidence he will come up with a better play.”
The Rockets couldn’t have gotten much more from Akeem Olajuwon, who had 15 of his game-high 34 points in the fourth quarter, or from Reid, who mailed in 25 points from long distance. Sampson finished with 13 points in 39 minutes.
But the Lakers also did all right with their stars. Magic Johnson played 41 minutes for the second game in a row and led the Lakers with 26 points and 16 assists, while Abdul-Jabbar had 23 points.
Maurice Lucas scored 20 points and did not miss a shot until his last one, and that’s when Abdul-Jabbar scored on his tip-in.
That’s also when the seat cushions filled the air.
“It got kinda’ crazy,” Byron Scott said.
James Worthy said he isn’t used to the Forum fans acting like that.
“They were more like a college crowd,” he said. “They were like Duke. Nothing hit me, though. I had my goggles on. I was covering up.”
Worthy said Riley told the players before the game to go all-out, but he expects Riley to cut down the minutes of both Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson in the last two games of the season.
“We were out there to take care of business,” Riley said.
“We want a good effort and to end the season on a positive note,” he said.
“The past few games, we’ve had nothing to play for. This was the last big game of the regular season, and it was the final touch before giving any rest to the guys.”
Fitch played it a lot looser than Riley in the first half, which ended in a 60-60 tie. The Rockets went the last three minutes of the second quarter with four of their starters on the bench.
One of the reserves was Craig Ehlo, who had played only 61 minutes in the last 25 Rocket games, and another was McDowell, who got into only his 20th game of the season.
On the other hand, Riley stayed mainly with his starters but gave Cooper more playing time after Rambis picked up three fouls in the first quarter, suffered a bruise above his right knee and did not return.
Laker Notes Dates for the first two games in the Lakers’ playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs are set: next Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 19, at 12:30 p.m. Both games will be played at the Forum. Games 3 and 4, if necessary, will be played in San Antonio, although the dates have not yet been decided. . . . The Lakers sold out the Forum for the 25th time in 40 games and set a one-season attendance record of 672,400, an average of 16,810 per game. In the Lakers’ previous high year, they drew 668,340 in 1971-72.