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Lakers’ Rally Is Too Short Against Atlanta

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Another close game unfolded Sunday night in the Forum, not entirely unexpected given recent history. But this time, there would be no bailout from Magic Johnson, no clutch free throws by A.C. Green and, most assuredly, no Laker victory.

After what seemed to be a game’s worth of mistakes, the Lakers attempted their third consecutive comeback only to fall victim to a rare last-second loss.

Designated hero on this night was Atlanta Hawks guard Doc Rivers, who made a jump shot from the top of the key just before the buzzer sounded to lift the Hawks to a 113-111 victory over the Lakers before a crowd of 17,505.

The loss ended the Lakers’ six-game winning streak, their second longest of the season. It was only their fourth home loss this season.

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And, in a more far-reaching circumstance, the loss also hurt the Lakers’ chances of finishing with the National Basketball Assn.'s best record. Coach Pat Riley proclaimed earlier in the week that the team could not lose a home game.

Well, that happened, and some might say the Lakers were overdue to lose a close one after beating Houston and Dallas in the final seconds earlier in the week.

It almost had become a game within a game for the Lakers, the objective to see how far they could fall behind before rallying. But Sunday night, they waited too long.

This time, the Lakers trailed by six points with 6:02 to play, after Dominique Wilkins executed a reverse double-pump dunk off the fast break.

Shortly thereafter, however, the Lakers rallied again. An 8-2 Laker run, culminating in a James Worthy layup with 2:27 to play tied it, 107-107. A minute later, however, after each team failed to score, Wilkins followed a miss by John Battle and scored inside for a 109-107 lead with 1:27 to play.

The Lakers had ample opportunity to not only catch but overtake the Hawks. They tied it a second time with 57 seconds to play on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook. But, 20 seconds later, Battle made a jump shot with three seconds on the shot clock for a 111-109 Hawk lead.

Again, the Lakers failed to immediately tie it, Johnson missing a short jumper with 31 seconds to play, Scott getting the rebound but missing a follow shot two seconds later and Green finally fouling Wilkins going for another rebound. Wilkins could have put the game nearly out of reach with successful free throws, but he missed both, badly, giving the Lakers the ball with 24 seconds to play.

The crowd, sensing another comeback, roared as the Lakers took the court after a timeout. The response grew in volume after Worthy found Johnson cutting through the lane for a basket, tying it, 111-111 with 9 seconds left.

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The Hawks, who most recently have lost close games to Golden State, Phoenix and Utah by failing to execute in the fourth quarter, did this time.

Rivers, standing at midcourt, inbounded the ball to Battle, who had Worthy draped all over him. When Johnson left Rivers to double-team Battle, it left Rivers open for a jump shot.

By the time Johnson recovered, Rivers’ shot was airborne, and the Lakers’ recent home-court dominance and confidence in close games was over.

“I thought Battle beat him but James recovered,” Johnson said. “I was just out of position too much. He hit a good shot.”

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Rivers said he was surprised to be left open.

“The plan was to get the ball in John’s hand or my hands,” Rivers said. “He got trapped down low and was able to get rid of the ball. I was wide open and got off a good shot.”

As a result, the Lakers (45-19) fell two games behind Cleveland (47-17) in the race for the league’s best record. The Lakers certainly had their chances and, for a while, appeared to be headed for an easy victory. They led by as many as 14 in the first half, but that eroded to one point after a third quarter in which they shot only 29.2%.

Wilkins, scoreless in the first quarter, scored eight of the Hawks’ first 10 points in the fourth quarter. Wilkins, who had shot only 46% in his previous six games, led all scorers with 33 points.

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Missed free throws notwithstanding, it was a dominant performance for Wilkins. But he was not alone in turning back the Lakers.

Help came from Rivers, who had 27 points, including the game-winning basket. Battle, coming off the bench in place of Reggie Theus, had 18 points, and Moses Malone was a dominating presence inside despite a poor shooting night.

The Lakers were led by Johnson’s 29 points, Byron Scott’s 21 and Worthy’s 18. But their cold shooting in the second half, the third quarter in particular, did them in after a basically good first half.

Things did not start well for the Hawks, who had not beaten a team with a winning record this month, got progressively worse in the first quarter, resulting in an 11-point deficit. The Laker lead swelled to 14 points before Coach Mike Fratello called timeout, put Wilkins back in and initiated a half-court trap.

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The Lakers were able to endure until Johnson was given a rest. Then, they succumbed to the Hawks’ half-court pressure. Three turnovers and two missed shots translated into a 9-2 Atlanta run that slashed the Laker lead to 48-43 with 4:39 to play.

Riley quickly called timeout and, when play resumed, Scott was almost immediately called for an offensive foul, Riley drawing a technical for objecting to the call. Theus made the technical foul, cutting the lead to four points, but Wilkins missed jump shot that would have made the Lakers even more vulnerable.

By the end of the first half, though, the Lakers managed to retrieve a somewhat comfortable 61-54 lead.

“I think the game was decided in the first quarter,” Riley said. “They were all out of sync, but we missed seven of eight free throws early. They kept coming back.”

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The Hawks (39-26), generally regarded as a disappointment this season after the off-season acquisitions of Malone and Theus, maybe even surprised themselves by not succumbing to the Lakers after a start in which they trailed, 13-4.

“I thought we had a tremendous effort tonight,” Coach Mike Fratello said. “Our guys didn’t hang their heads when they fell behind. . . . Everything happened for us down the stretch.”

And, for the Lakers, for a change, it did not.


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