To appreciate how depleted the Lakers were Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls, consider this: Other than rookie Milt Wagner, who hadn’t played in 33 games and was averaging only 6 minutes a night when he had, the only guards left on the Laker bench had slicked-back hair, sharp suits and dress shoes.
Given a choice, Pat Riley said he wouldn’t have activated either himself or his 35-year-old assistant, Randy Pfund, one-time backcourt star of tiny Wheaton (Ill.) College.
Jerry West was in town, too, and appeared at a Nerf Ball championship at the bar owned by Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka, but the Laker general manager wouldn’t have wanted any part of Michael Jordan, either.
“I’d have played Bill Bertka,” Riley finally decided, referring to his other assistant, who has been around so long he remembers when Chick Hearn was just starting out. “Because he can post up.”
And when Magic Johnson aggravated his groin pull on his first drive to the basket, forcing him to be a spectator for the last 38 minutes of the game, the Lakers might as well have packed up and gone home early. Instead, they let Jordan put his special stamp on a 128-107 Bull win before a sellout crowd of 18,676 that could have cared less that it came at the expense of the Laker MIAs.: Johnson, Michael Cooper (ankle) and Wes Matthews (eye).
The Lakers had not lost in Chicago since 1982 and the Bulls hadn’t beaten them at all since 1984.
Jordan, for one, had no doubts about what was in store for the Lakers when Johnson came up lame after a coast-to-coast drive in which he put the ball behind his back and between his legs before going up for a shot and drawing a foul from Bull guard Sam Vincent.
“They were doomed,” said Jordan, who showed no quarter himself by scoring 38 points (on 34 shots) to go along with his 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals.
Wagner was game enough: He played 38 minutes, scored 14 points--10 in the second quarter--and handed out 6 assists.
“I’m sure Milt Wagner will sleep well tonight,” Riley said.
And the Lakers actually stayed within striking distance for longer than what might have been expected, considering they were playing their fifth game in a week and fourth in five nights on the road. It was still a six-point game, 88-82, with 3:36 to go in the third quarter.
“Then we made two turnovers, which is the last thing I remember,” said Riley, a convenient lapse of memory, inasmuch as the Bulls doubled their lead by the end of the quarter to 101-89 and went on to inflict the Lakers’ most one-sided loss of the season.
Someone struck upon the brilliant notion that the game might have been closer had Johnson not been forced to strap on an icepack with two minutes left in the first quarter instead of after the game, as is his custom.
“He’s the most valuable player in the league,” Riley said. “I think that’s pretty obvious. We don’t go very far without him.”
Johnson has been going the extra mile because of the absence of Cooper, but his forced exit Thursday raised anew the question of how much longer he can play with the groin injury he sustained in the Utah game two weeks ago today.
“I tried to push through it again tonight,” Johnson said. “I knew I had to play. But Gary (Vitti, the trainer) told me if it tears, I’ll be out a long time.”
That’s something the Lakers wouldn’t dare risk, Riley said. But they will have little time to rest upon their arrival home today. Dallas invades for a game Saturday night, then it’s New Jersey Monday night, before the Lakers hop another jet for a date in Portland Tuesday night, completing a torturous 8-games-in-12-nights stretch.
And the news on Cooper isn’t good, according to Riley. He was re-examined by Dr. Robert Kerlan after a strenuous test, and there is still swelling in the left ankle he sprained Feb. 18. The Lakers still list Cooper as day-to-day, but backcourt mate Byron Scott, for one, isn’t counting on Cooper’s return.
And Matthews, whose right cornea was scratched in New York on Wednesday--"a very painful injury,” Vitti said--flew to Los Angeles Thursday morning and is iffy at best for Saturday night, too. Riley said the Lakers may have to consider signing someone to a 10-day contract.
“It’s tough,” said Scott, who played 40 minutes (he scored 20 points) Thursday night after going 46 in New York the night before. “It might have been a little easier tonight if we knew we were going to have to play without (Magic).
“There’s a psychological effect on the team when, at the start of the game, you see him pull up like that. Right away, I knew he was hurt.”
Right away, Johnson knew that Jordan--who electrified the Forum with a 22-point fourth quarter last month in Los Angeles--was going to have himself another mega-night.
“He knew we were going to wear down,” Johnson said. “As a pro, and as an All-Star, you take advantage of a situation like that. And he definitely did that.”
So did a few other Bulls, namely Charles Oakley, the rebounding machine who did his usual number on the boards--11 rebounds--but also flaunted a rarely seen shooting touch, making 9 of 11 shots for 20 points.
Rookies Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant came off the bench to score 16 and 14 points, respectively; newly acquired guard Vincent dished out 11 assists, and the Chicago front line shouldered Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out of the way at will, holding him to a single rebound.
Despite 12 rebounds each by A.C. Green and Mychal Thompson, the Lakers were out-rebounded by a 53-40 margin.
For nearly all Lakers involved, it was a forgettable night--except for Wagner, who had not played more than 17 minutes in any game until Thursday.
“We’ve always had respect for his ability,” Riley said of the guard who took Louisville to the Final Four. “He got very winded in the second half, but he didn’t embarrass himself.”
Yes, Wagner agreed, he would sleep well Thursday night.
“I’ll probably have to get somebody to knock on my door to wake me up,” he said. “But I’m sure I’m not the only one on this team who’s going to sleep good.”