Having won recent games without their peerless defender, the Lakers found out Tuesday that they were about to try without their captain, all 7 feet 2 inches worth of him.
Tuesday afternoon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar phoned in sick. Tuesday night, his teammates extended their winning streak to eight games and 32 of 35, easing past the Washington Bullets, 111-100, in a game that lovers of basketball will little note nor long remember.
"Before, we used to care how we won," Magic Johnson said. "Now we don't care how we win.
"Before, we always wanted to be a show team with our fast break, to be pretty. We've matured out of that.
"Hey, whichever way it takes to win, whether it's ugly or pretty. . . . This team has come a long way from showtime. We can be pretty a little bit, ugly a little bit, physical a little bit.
"I think before, we used to worry a little bit when we didn't have Kareem. Now we're just businesslike--get Mike (Smrek) and come on in. If I'm out, get Coop and come on in. Doesn't matter who's out, get five out there and play."
However long it takes. Tuesday they were at something less than an emotional peak, and they were missing the last option on all their plays and the heart of their defense, Michael Cooper, who is out with a sprained ankle.
However, providence had delivered a Bullets team that had just lost 9 of 11, and had just flown in from Denver the same day. They also had a star of their own--Bernard King--back at the hotel with a sore back.
Let's just say this wasn't the upset of the century. The Bullets managed to keep the game slow for a half with superior offensive rebounding and took the prohibitive underdog's customary early lead (19-12, after the Lakers went 6:21 of the first period without a field goal). But after that, the Lakers started zone trapping to speed things up. They had a 47-45 lead by halftime, and blew the game open in the third period.
"What does Kareem mean to us?" Laker Coach Pat Riley said. "It's called 'last leg.' The last leg on every one of our sets goes to him. What happens, if we can't get a good shot any other way, he will. That's sort of like a security blanket for the other players. They know that.
"We didn't want a steady dose of them going to Moses (Malone.) Not because I didn't think Mike could play him. I didn't think the refs would give him a break."
The Lakers grabbed a 74-59 lead in the third quarter, and opened the fourth with their reserves in against the Bullets' reserves, one matchup giving 6-foot 1-inch Matthews a rare height advantage, since he was going against 5-3 Muggsy Bogues.
It hasn't been Bogues' season, nor was it his night. Matthews, a star in the Sunday victory over the Pistons, missed a couple of layups and still shot 6 for 10 Tuesday and had 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals in 23 minutes. Bogues had six points.
Early in the fourth quarter, Matthews intercepted Bogues' pass, crying "Ah yes!" as he did it, then started a fast break, hitting Kurt Rambis at the other end for a dunk. The next time the Bullets came down, Matthews stole the ball from Darrell Walker, took it to the other end, was fouled and made the free throw. When Jeff Malone protested the foul call, he drew a technical and Johnson made that, giving the Lakers an 84-67 lead, their largest.
After that, they mopped up.
"It was a game, a lot of things could have happened," Riley said. "We broke through."
They may have to wear sunglasses to watch the videotape, but they like the way it looks in the standings: 43-9 and climbing.
Billy Thompson played the last 4:13, got a standing ovation, looked uncertain and scored two points. Coach Pat Riley: "He looked like a brand new calf you just let out." . . . Interim Bullet Coach Wes Unseld, on his situation: "I don't even know if I have a situation. Everything has to be assessed. They have to assess me. I have to assess me." Would he like to stay on next season? "I don't like losing," Unseld said, "but I like coaching." . . . Magic Johnson, on the possibility of losing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for more than one game: "You don't want to go an extended period without him. Kareem sets everybody up. Teams like to double-team him, and he's such a good passer and decoy. We'd like it to be one game and get him back."