The Lakers have not been behind in a conference playoff series since 1981. Until now, that is.
Akeem Olajuwon scored 40 points Friday night, and the Houston Rockets took a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference final with a 117-109 victory at the Summit.
The last time the Lakers were in the same situation was five years ago, and by the time that happened, the series was already over. Houston took two out of three games to eliminate the Lakers in a first-round mini-series.
Could something similar be happening again?
"Now, we know what difficulty is," Coach Pat Riley said. "You don't win championships if you can't overcome that."
This series against the Rockets isn't yet over, but if the Lakers don't win Sunday, it almost will be. That possibility was spoken about in hushed tones in the Laker locker room.
"Right now, it just seems like they want it a little more than we do," Byron Scott said. "You could say we're concerned.
"We're down, 2-1, and playing again in a few hours on their home court," he said. "I'd say it's time to say this is a must game. But this is also no time to panic."
Perhaps not, but if the Lakers fail to win Sunday and get out of the Summit with a split, they are going to be a whole lot more than concerned.
Already, they're moving very close to the brink.
"They're near the edge, but they've still got both feet planted," Rocket Robert Reid said.
The Lakers lost their second straight to the Rockets, even though they shot 56%, not only because they gave up 20 offensive rebounds to the Rockets, but also because they faltered in very un-Laker-like fashion down then stretch.
With 5:23 left in the game, the Lakers held a 105-103 lead, but they scored only four points the rest of the way.
It all began, naturally, with Olajuwon. The most active power forward in the NBA, who had 12 rebounds, picked up a missed shot by Reid and tied the game. After Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed a hook, Ralph Sampson rebounded a misfire by Olajuwon and scored over Abdul-Jabbar.
That basket gave the Rockets the lead for good, 107-105. They were still in the lead, 108-107, with 3:27 to go, when the Lakers committed just enough mistakes to cost them.
Sampson, playing with five fouls, knocked the ball away from Abdul-Jabbar, and Mitchell Wiggins outran the Laker guards to score on a breakaway. When Maurice Lucas missed, Sampson rebounded and began a fast break that ended when Magic Johnson was forced to foul Reid.
Two free throws from Reid increased the Rocket advantage to 112-107 with just over two minutes left. Then Abdul-Jabbar was double-teamed, and his pass to Scott was deflected away, which meant that the Lakers were forced into a 24-second violation when Scott's desperate three-pointer was an airball.
Olajuwon followed with a dunk, but Johnson made two free throws to get the Lakers within 114-109 with 1:04 remaining, before a free throw by Olajuwon and Wiggins' breakaway dunk finished them off.
So from the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter until the end of the game, all the Lakers had to show for themselves was one field goal, four free throws, seven missed shots and three turnovers.
This was not the type of performance that inspires a lot of confidence, but the Lakers tried to stay positive afterwards.
"We can't dwell on this current situation," James Worthy said. "Nothing has come easy this year."
Worthy's current situation is another source of concern to the Lakers, who may have to dwell on it a lot if he can't play Sunday. Worthy suffered a cervical strain when he banged his head off Jim Petersen's knee in a collision under the basket with 58 seconds left in the third quarter. Worthy remained in the game but went scoreless in the final period.
The injury to Worthy, which was described as something similar to a whiplash, may respond to treatment, or if it doesn't, he may not be able to play Sunday. Worthy scored 29 points as the Lakers made a big effort to bring him out of his shooting slump by directing much of the offense his way.
Riley also switched Worthy's defensive assignment from guard Lewis Lloyd to forward Rodney McCray. That worked all right on McCray, but then Lloyd got away.
Lloyd finished with 26 points in 33 minutes, but what hurt the Lakers even more was his rebounding. Lloyd picked off seven offensive rebounds when the Lakers failed to block him from the backboards and instead concentrated on Sampson and Olajuwon.
"He was sneaking in there all the time," Abdul-Jabbar said of Lloyd.
Abdul-Jabbar finished with 33 points in 42 minutes, and Johnson had 17 points and 20 assists, but the Lakers seemed to be struggling with their offense the entire game.
"We weren't as patient as we should have been," Abdul-Jabbar said. "We just didn't take our time. The mental mistakes told on us.
"We know we have a tough job ahead, and it's going to be uphill," he said.
Olajuwon seemed to be rolling downhill and was not easily stopped. He played all but two of the game's 48 minutes to finish with 14-for-28 shooting and 12 rebounds.
"We're not in awe of anybody," Olajuwon said. "We're in control of our own destiny now."
Laker Notes Maurice Lucas worked 25 minutes and had 8 rebounds, but he didn't have any more success than Kurt Rambis did defending against Olajuwon. "I'll tell you what," Lucas said. "We have to play our best game Sunday. At this point, we have to win." . . . No matter what they did, the Lakers were never able to put some distance between themselves and the Rockets. The Lakers shot 69% in the first quarter and led by only one point. The Rockets shot 34.6% in the second quarter and outscored the Lakers by two points. . . . "We knew that whichever team got a little spurt first would win the game," Byron Scott said. "They got it." . . . Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had four of his shots blocked in Game 2, blocked five Rocket shots in Game 3.