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Utah Has Its Hands Full at the Forum : Even After 28-Point Loss, Lakers Are Favored Today

Times Staff Writer

If the Utah Jazz can carry this NBA Western Conference semifinal series to an improbable conclusion this afternoon--and as the banner in the Salt Palace said, “The Opera Ain’t Over Till the Fat Layden Sings"--will the world really be ready for:

--Frank Layden and Mel Turpin fashion spreads in GQ?

--Karl Malone chatting on the set with Joan Rivers?

--Mark Eaton in kung-fu flicks?

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--John Stockton on a Sunset Boulevard billboard?

--Donny and Marie Osmond sitting courtside?

No wonder Laker Coach Pat Riley calls Game 7 at the Forum the ultimate challenge. The Jazz threatens not only to topple a basketball champion, but a way of life. Maybe that’s why Riley spent a day off at the movies Friday, watching “The Last Emperor.” That was about the dying days of a dynasty, too.

The Jazz, meanwhile, was trying to line up a movie star of its own--Gene Hackman, who played the coach of Hickory High in “Hoosiers,” the story of another Little Team That Could. Hackman supposedly liked the idea of becoming a Utah backer, but Jazz officials thought of it too late.

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“I guess we’re going to have to do it in the finals,” said Jazz President David Checketts, daring to utter aloud in Salt Lake City what would be considered heresy in Hollywood: That Utah, not the Lakers, will advance to the Western finals against Dallas Monday night.

If the Lakers aren’t on the brink of extinction, they gave anthropologists a good idea of what tyrannosaurus rex must have been like on his last legs in Game 6 Thursday. The Jazz emerged from whatever obscure cave it had been hiding in all these months and banished the Lakers from Utah, 108-80.

James Worthy called it the ugliest game of his life. Mychal Thompson said it was his most embarrassing moment on a basketball court. Magic Johnson tried to pull off his most difficult trick of all--he tried to make the game just disappear from memory.

That was impossible to do Thursday night, with the sounds of the Talking Heads’ fitting “Burning Down the House” still reverberating through the walls of the visitors’ dressing room.

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“It was so embarrassing,” Thompson said Friday morning upon the Lakers’ return to Los Angeles, “because of the stakes involved and the way they just dominated us.”

Until Eaton suddenly was transformed into the Incredible Hulk, Stockton out-magicked Magic and Mailman Malone turned into Federal Express, only a world-class worrier like Jerry West would have lost much sleep about the outcome of today’s game. Thursday night’s game may be one thing, but the Jazz traditionally beats the Lakers at the Forum about as often as Jerry Buss attends a game without an escort.

It just didn’t happen. Dating back to the days when Pistol Pete Maravich was still alive and the team was still in New Orleans, the Jazz had journeyed to the Forum 33 times, and won only twice. Game 1 of this series promised more of the same, as the Jazz scored just eight points in the first quarter, tying a playoff record, and Layden reached for his comic mask to keep from crying.

Since that game, however, the Jazz has kept the Lakers in a cold sweat. Utah won Game 2 at the Forum and came within Michael Cooper’s last-second shot of stealing Game 5 here, too. The teams split last weekend’s games in Utah, only because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played something other than a cameo role for the only time this series in the Lakers’ 113-100 win last Sunday.

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And just when logic would suggest that the Lakers had put a crack in Utah’s resolve with Tuesday night’s heart-stopping win, the Jazz came out Thursday night and toasted the Lakers like so many marshmallows, scoring 18 straight points in a 26-2 first-quarter run that had Riley looking ahead to Game 7 even before a caller claiming to be Buss placed a bogus call to the Laker dressing room at halftime.

Whether the ball is in his hands or the Lakers’, Stockton is setting playoff records. He has 95 assists through 6 games, a record for a playoff series of any duration. He had 24 in Game 5, which tied Magic Johnson’s single-game record. And he also has 23 steals, a record for a 6-game series and only 4 shy of Maurice Cheeks’ record for a 7-game series.

One other Stockton statistic that is not a record but is notable just the same: Despite spotting Johnson a good 8 inches in height, the 6-foot 1-inch Stockton has as many rebounds, 23, as Magic.

Malone, meanwhile, leads all scorers with an average of 28.3 points a game, 6 more than Byron Scott, the Lakers’ leading scorer, and Eaton is averaging 10.2 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 blocks a game while holding Abdul-Jabbar to 12.7 points a game.

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This group of Lakers has faced just one Game 7 in its experience--in the 1984 finals against the Celtics at Boston--and the Lakers lost that one, 111-100. The last time the Lakers won a Game 7 at home was in 1977, when they beat the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals.

Nonetheless, if it’s history lessons you’re after, Riley has one of his own.

“There’s only been one Western Conference team in the last nine years that has beaten us in the playoffs, and that’s Houston, in 1981 and in 1986,” Riley said.

Frankly, Riley said, he’s grown tired of the Jazz being portrayed as unloved and overmatched. It’s all a con job, he said.

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“The easiest posture to play from is the underdog,” Riley said on the team’s flight back to Los Angeles Friday. “That’s the easiest situation to coach in. They’re a talented team, downplaying who they are, minimizing who they are. They have nothing to lose, no consequences.

“They’re the Hoosiers, they’re Hickory High, they say the league doesn’t want them to win, CBS doesn’t want them to win. . . . That’s fuel for them, that’s their passion, when in fact they’re a great team with great players. They should have enough respect for themselves that they don’t need that.”

The Lakers, 7 1/2-point favorites, can only win, Riley said. Anything else will be considered a failure. “There’s no joy in that,” Riley said. “All we can do is win, and after nine years, that’s a heavy burden.”

But win or lose, Riley said, the Jazz will be rewarded.

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“They’ll be canonized as heroes,” he said.

Riley also raised objections to Layden’s carping about the officiating, especially as it pertained to Eaton.

"(Layden) says, ‘Protect my big guy, we can’t win with him on the bench,’ ” Riley said. "(The officials) are starting to believe him. And that’s a tremendous disservice to our team.”

Meantime, Riley said, the officials have given Utah forward Bobby Hansen considerable latitude against Magic Johnson.

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“What Hansen has done is take a bead on him--set his sights totally on him--and manhandled and abused him and done whatever it takes to keep Earvin from doing what he has to do,” Riley said.

Utah is a young, hungry, talented team, Riley said. The Lakers are wiser, talented and more calculating, and it is because of their experience, he said, that the Lakers should win this afternoon and advance.

“Unless we’re not good enough,” he added. “And that I don’t believe. We just have to come down and compete on every possession, every loose ball, every rebound. And we have to play for another.

“Now it’s time to bring your best stuff, dig down deeper than you’ve ever done and get the job done. If it works, fine.

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“If it doesn’t, we can go home, and let another wound heal.”

Michael Cooper, for one, isn’t planning on bringing bandages.

“No reason to look sad,” he said. “Everything’s going to be OK.”


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