Lakers Collapse at the Center and Trail Jazz, 2-1

Times Staff Writer

You wonder, after a night like this, whether Pat Riley should have consulted Nancy Reagan's astrologer before making his now-famous guarantee.

But there probably isn't a star-gazer, Tarot card-flipper or channeler alive who could have foreseen the night when the Laker coach would bench Magic Johnson, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would again play handmaiden to Mark Eaton and when James Worthy would play possum, all in the same game.

You don't need a horoscope to know that the Lakers are up to their high-top sneakers in trouble, and if things don't change suddenly, Riley's guaranteed express to another National Basketball Assn. title could find itself beached on the shores of the Great Salt Lake.

The Lakers trailed from wire-to-wire in losing to the Utah Jazz, 96-89, Friday night to fall behind, 2 games to 1, in their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series. The Lakers, who lost just three playoff games all last spring in sweeping to a title, have now lost two in three days to the Jazz, who have never advanced beyond the second round but could take a commanding lead with a win in Game 4 here Sunday afternoon.

"I'm sure you guys have got a lot of questions," Riley said, "but I'm not sure that I've got the answers. We either have got to change our attitude or this will be a very short series . . . If it wasn't for Byron Scott's perimeter shooting early, we would have been blown out totally."

As it was, the Lakers trailed by 8 points after the first quarter, 11 at halftime and 12 after three quarters, before coming within four, 92-88, with two minutes to go. But Riley said that run probably resulted more from the Jazz getting tired--five Utah players played 40 or more minutes, with Karl Malone going the full 48 to score 29 points and grab 13 rebounds--than from anything the Lakers did.

And when it did get close, the Lakers turned to their old reliable, Abdul-Jabbar, only to discover that suddenly, their 41-year-old center is seemingly just old. Abdul-Jabbar, who made just 3 of 13 shots in Tuesday's loss at home to the Jazz, went 3 for 14 Friday night. The only guy with a worse shooting line was backup center Mychal Thompson, who was 3 for 16, including 2 for 13 in the first half. Only Thompson's 12 rebounds kept his night from being a total disaster.

The first time Abdul-Jabbar touched the ball, he threw up an off-balance 3-foot jumper. The next time, he had a pass by Scott go off his hands and out of bounds. He had a short jumper kicked back into his face by Eaton, who had 14 rebounds to Abdul-Jabbar's 6, and 6 blocks to the Laker center's 2.

Abdul-Jabbar finished with 6 points, 4 fewer than defensive specialist Eaton, and one of the poorest showings he's ever had in 204 playoff games.

In the last two minutes Friday night, Abdul-Jabbar missed a sky hook, was called for an offensive foul when he picked off Jazz forward Bob Hansen with an illegal screen, then missed another sky hook with 45 seconds left.

John Stockton, who had 22 points, 12 assists and a dramatic three-pointer that beat the buzzer at the end of the third quarter, then made the first of four free throws Utah would convert in the final 28 seconds.

"You know," Johnson said, carefully choosing his words, "he (Abdul-Jabbar) has been the man, he's been carrying us so long, we've got to continue to go with him.

"But he's worrying about (Eaton) for some reason. I don't understand that.

"Kareem always went so quick by him to shoot it, now it's like he's looking for him."

Worthy, who picked up three fouls in 9:50 and did not attempt a shot until late in the third quarter, also commented on the trouble Eaton was creating for Abdul-Jabbar.

"He's getting the shots but he's not shooting as easily as he usually shoots," said Worthy, who only had nine points himself, just the second time in 78 career playoff games that he has failed to break double figures. "Eaton is crawling all over him, hanging on him, forcing him out."

All of the Lakers are spending too much time worrying about Eaton, Johnson said, with the exception of Scott, who scored 29 points.

The illegal defense controversy, which flared up after Tuesday night's game, was non-existent Friday night. The Laker offense, however, should have been banned in Utah.

"We're looking around for him too much," Johnson said. "We missed so many easy layups, so many 5-footers and 3-footers, because we were so busy looking for him. We had something like 7 or 8 short-handed layups."

Johnson said he wasn't thinking about Eaton when he parted the Jazz defense with a drive, only to blow a wide-open layup in the second quarter. He just didn't extend his shot to the basket.

A moment later, Riley sent in Tony Campbell to replace him, and Johnson spent the last 5:13 of the half on the bench.

"He was playing tired," Riley said. "He wasn't getting his shots and getting to the rim. I was trying to speed the tempo up."

Johnson said that this was the first time this season that Riley had pulled him from a game for a reason other than to rest him or because he was injured. And it's almost unprecedented that Johnson would come out of a game in which the Lakers were facing a double-digit deficit.

"Sometimes, it takes me longer than other times to get loose because of the groin," Johnson said. "He made the decision. I had to go along with it. Of course, as a player you don't like it, but we needed something."

The Lakers also need to re-discover the fast break that made them all famous, not to mention providing a few shoe contracts, as well.

"We were slow tonight," Riley said. "Did we look slow? We were very slow, very plodding. We've got to take it to them."

They will also have to find out what Abdul-Jabbar has left to give.

Asked if he were to the point of alarm about the Laker captain, Riley responded with emotion.

"I love the guy," he said. "I'll never be alarmed about him. We've come too far, too long, and the guy's got too much pride.

"He's brought us here for 10 years. This thing is a long way from being over."

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