The Lakers, en masse, probably never moved as fast as they did sprinting off the Forum floor with an apparent (and eventual) 97-96 victory over the Houston Rockets Monday night, perhaps trying to escape more than celebrate.
They got their first lead since the opening minute when A.C. Green sank a free throw with one second left in the game.
Then, as soon as Green missed the second shot and the Rockets rebounded the ball at the buzzer, the Laker players made a direct dash to the locker room.
One problem, though: The game was not over.
It was not going to be that easy for the Lakers, who faded in and out like poor radio reception on a night when the fatigue of a just-completed five-game trip lingered.
Referees summoned the Lakers back onto the court, explaining that the Rockets called time out before the buzzer sounded. After Houston’s timeout, a desperation half-court shot by Eric (Sleepy) Floyd flew over the basket.
Then, the Lakers could celebrate. There were only a few raised fists and shouts, maybe because they were too tired to do anything else. And, once again, they left the court, posthaste, and will not gather again until practice Thursday.
They certainly could use the rest. Coach Pat Riley, saying he “dangled the carrot in front of their faces,” told his players that they would get two days off if they managed to overcome fatigue and the inspired Rockets.
So the Lakers did whatever it took to win on a night when they easily could have packed it in.
Magic Johnson called his and his teammates’ performance both “ugly” and impressive.
For instance, they fought back from a 14-point first-half deficit and an eight-point deficit with 4:13 left to play. But, they only made 38.9% of their shots in the game. And, Johnson registered his 12th triple-double with 19 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists, but he made only 4 of his 23 shots.
Strangely, the most spry Laker Monday night turned out to be 41-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who tied his season high in scoring with 21 points and reached his season high in rebounding with 13.
It was Abdul-Jabbar, making eight of 15 shots, who kept the Lakers close until Johnson, Green and others awakened in the final minutes.
“This was the ugliest triple-double in the history of basketball,” Johnson said, smiling and shaking his head at the same time. “Oh man, ugly. Ugly, but at the same time, a great win. These are the kind of wins that are more satisfying than blowing someone out, but everything was against us.”
Not everything, only the National Basketball Assn. schedule. The Lakers were returning from a five-game, nine-day trip encompassing three time zones. They had played Sunday night in Oakland, and the Rockets had arrived in Los Angeles before the Lakers did.
Riley was prepared for the worst. “We had every excuse in the world tonight to lose this game,” he said. “When we look at the schedule during the off-season, there are some games we look at and try to change. We circled this one, but we couldn’t change it.”
When the Lakers, trailing by six points with 4 1/2 minutes to play, were called for a 10-second back-court violation, they looked spent.
Akeem Olajuwon, who led all scorers with 30 points, then sank a jump shot for a 94-86 Rocket lead with 4:13 to play.
But the Lakers, using a half-court trap, pulled to within 96-94 with 1:52 remaining after Byron Scott scored inside. Scott finished with 16 points.
In the possessions that followed, it seemed as if neither team would persevere.
Finally, the Lakers tied it, 96-96, with 49 seconds left when Johnson grabbed the rebound off an Abdul-Jabbar miss and sank a short jump shot.
Floyd then missed a jump shot from the top of the key. In all, the Rockets did not score in the final 3:40.
So, with 24 seconds left, the Lakers put the ball in Johnson’s hand for a final shot. He simply dribbled near mid-court until the clock read 10 seconds, then backed Woodson into the lane.
As Johnson twirled to attempt a jump hook, he said he noticed that Otis Thorpe, who was guarding Green, had double-teammed him. Johnson fed Green, who double-pumped and missed a jump shot but drew a foul.
“The Lakers really didn’t win it,” said Thorpe, whose team has lost 10 consecutive regular-season games at the Forum. “We kind of gave it away.”
However the victory was achieved, the Lakers (44-18) will take it. It was the first time all season that they had won while being held to fewer than 100 points.
Despite playing back-to-back games, Coach Pat Riley went with only seven players, deciding not to play Orlando Woolridge for only the second time this season. The first time, in Phoenix in December, was a benching for Woolridge. But Monday night, Riley said he merely wanted to play with the top seven players and use a different matchup. “I wanted to use our best perimeter players and our best big men tonight, because of the situations,” Riley said. “Also, Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) is playing very well, and I wanted to keep him in the rotation, rather than yanking him out. He’s the guy everyone said was in the casket earlier in the season. Now, he’s back in the Rolls-Royce.” . . . Woolridge declined to comment on not playing.