If Commissioner David Stern had any second thoughts about insisting that James Worthy show up for the National Basketball Assn. All-Star game, sore left knee and all, it's likely that his mind was put to ease by the Lakers' 117-107 victory over the Atlanta Hawks Friday night.
For Stern, a lawyer, it's very logical:
Worthy can't possibly make a case for requiring rest after shredding All-Star counterpart Dominique (Human Highlight Film) Wilkins with a performance that deserves a miniseries at least.
Worthy scored 29 points, including a one-handed three-pointer to end the first quarter and a sensational 360-degree spin and left-handed jam while going one-on-one against Wilkins down the stretch--when he scored six points in the last 3 1/2 minutes to break the game open.
The win, the Lakers' 12th straight at home, enabled Los Angeles to finish the first half of the season with a league-best 33-8 record. The Hawks, who came here with the league's third-best record, had taken advantage of foul trouble that claimed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, and came back from 16 points down to take a four-point lead, 88-84, after three quarters.
But with the Lakers leading, 98-97, Kevin Willis put up a panic-inspired 35-footer that missed by almost as much, and Abdul-Jabbar took a lob pass from Magic Johnson to give the Lakers a three-point lead.
There's still a possibility that Worthy--who won his personal duel with Wilkins, 29-19--may not make it to Chicago next weekend. Part of the problem was that no one from the Lakers contacted league officials to inform them of Worthy's decision to skip the game to give his knee rest. If he decides that the tendinitis condition in his knee still requires rest, Worthy can inform the league of that before the game.
After a series of phone calls between the league office and the team, the Lakers released a statement in which Worthy declared his intention to play.
"At the time I tried to make my decision, I didn't really take into consideration the importance of the whole (All-Star) weekend, more than the game itself," said Worthy, who was added as a reserve to the Western Conference team by a vote of the conference coaches. "A lot of the NBA sponsors will be there.
"I don't want to have any animosity with the league."
Riley said he had no quarrel with the league, although he said he was "totally surprised" by the decision.
He wasn't surprised, however, by the way Worthy played Friday.
"Friskily awesome," Riley said. "I'm sure he saw (Wilkins) as a great challenge, and he wasn't going to let anyone on his home court steal his thunder."
The Hawks, who came into the game with the league's stingiest defense, one that allowed just a shade over 100 points a game, did some thundering of their own, especially in the third quarter, after Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson both went to the bench with four fouls.
While Wilkins, who had 11 points at halftime, tapered off to a total of 19, almost 10 fewer than his average, Willis and Glenn (Doc) Rivers picked up the scoring slack.
At one point, Willis--who finished with 24 points--had made 9 of 10 shots. Rivers cut through the Laker defense with some daring drives and finished with a team-high 27 points.
But it was Willis' mistimed bomb that may have done in the Hawks. Atlanta Coach Mike Fratello fixed Willis with a glare that would have reduced more sensitive men to the size of Spud Webb. He then called a 20-second timeout, which he used in its entirety to dress down the 7-foot forward.
"We took a very bad shot," Fratello said, and what else could Willis do but agree?
"I should have put it on the floor first and then got closer," Willis said. "It was just one of those things."
It was a one-of-a-kind thing when Worthy nearly put Wilkins into the seats with his spin move a few moments later.
"The play was set up to be an alley-oop for Cooper," Worthy said. "They had to respect that, and Dominique came over to help out. I just noticed I faked one way and he went the other, and I just went hard to the hoop."
As did Sacramento forward Otis Thorpe the night before, Wilkins found it hard to believe that Worthy was hurting.
"Could have fooled me," Wilkins said. "He had a great game."
It's the kind of game the best teams seem to inspire in the Lakers. Cooper was 3 for 3 from three-point range, had 9 rebounds and 7 assists, and also kicked the Lakers back into gear just when it appeared the Hawks might pull away.
With L.A. down, 79-75, Cooper drew the Lakers within one with a three-pointer. He then grabbed a rebound of a Wilkins miss, pushed the ball down the floor and fed Worthy for a jam that gave the Lakers the lead. Another Hawk miss resulted in another Laker fast break, with Cooper dishing off to Scott for a jumper.
Scott, who had just 4 points at halftime, finished with 19. He also had a game-high 5 steals and 4 assists. And Magic Johnson had 16 points and 13 assists.
"We've beaten them all and we're proud of that fact," Riley said. "We beat Boston in Boston, Detroit in Detroit, Seattle, Utah . . . all the top teams we've faced, we've gotten the first word in."
Presumably, it won't be the last.
"There are plenty of easy wins in a season," Mychal Thompson said. " . . . You have to win games like these."
Regarding the James Worthy, will-he-or-won't-he All-Star mixup: A little better communication would have made the whole issue moot. It would appear that chances are good Worthy still won't play, especially since Pat Riley is the Western Conference coach. "I have the final choice," Riley said. The league, obviously, was concerned about credibility: How could someone play as well as Worthy has been, and then bow out of the league showcase, claiming an injury? But what would prevent this scenario: Worthy plays in next Tuesday's game against Chicago, then complains the next day that the tendinitis has flared up again. The Lakers keep him out of the next game--against the Clippers Thursday night--and then Worthy requests permission to miss the All-Star game. . . . For the third straight game, Riley gave Mike Smrek an early call off the bench. When the third-string center came in, the Lakers were ahead, 20-19. When he came out, they were ahead, 47-37. Smrek had 5 points, 2 rebounds and 1 blocked shot in 7 minutes. His playing time, however, is coming at the expense of Kurt Rambis, who did not play at all Friday night. Rambis has not played in two of the last three games.