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Lakers Walk Over Nuggets as Magic Offers Guarantee

Times Staff Writer

Another unconditional guarantee, a specialty of major-appliance salesmen everywhere and prominent members of the Lakers’ organization, was boldly made Tuesday night in the Forum.

No, it did not come from Coach Pat Riley, whose much-publicized guarantee of back-to-back National Basketball Assn. championships for the Lakers before last season was eventually fulfilled.

This was a more modest--but nonetheless important--proclamation by none other than guard Magic Johnson, who said after a 142-118 victory over the Denver Nuggets that the Lakers will win the Pacific Division title.

“This team is going to come through,” Johnson said. “This week, we’re going to take care of the division.

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“I guarantee it. We are going to win. We are ready to play like the Lakers have played. We know what we have to do.”

Big talk from the Lakers came after they took major action by blowing out the Denver Nuggets in dominating fashion to regain a one-game Pacific Division lead over the Phoenix Suns with three games left.

For the last week or so, while their once-comfortable lead was dwindling, the Lakers vacillated between genuine concern and a lack of motivation. Only after the Suns twice pulled to within a half-game of the lead did the Lakers take notice.

So Tuesday, they apparently took stock of their position and their well-cultivated reputation.

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Told of Johnson’s guarantee, Riley smiled affirmatively. It is something he had been waiting to hear from his players.

“I like that,” Riley said. “He’s going to walk his talk, and that’s good. We got the lead right now. We’ve got to put up or shut up. We haven’t had that kind of attitude for about a month.

“We’ve just been waiting to finish out the season. But we’ve got to defend our championship with a passion. And I hadn’t seen that. We can’t just give it away; we’ve got to have somebody take it. They’ll feel better about themselves if they lose it that way than giving it away.”

The Lakers certainly were feeling good about themselves Tuesday night, and with good reason. Signs of life among Laker players were evident and enjoyed by the Forum crowd of 17,505. The Lakers showed a sustained intensity that had not been present in more than a week. They got the Nuggets down early and, except for the briefest of lapses at the start of the third quarter, did not let up.

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Although the three remaining games, all against Pacific Division teams, are more important in the event of tiebreaking possibilities, the Lakers felt a strong effort was needed to re-establish their dominance.

They certainly accomplished that.

“They drilled everything,” Denver Coach Doug Moe said. “They played great defense. They didn’t let up. Any let-up at all by them and I think we could’ve gotten back into the game. But that didn’t happen.”

That is because the Lakers, after spending most of the regular season searching for motivation, now have it in the form of a divisional race. It is a new sensation for the Lakers, who haven’t even been challenged in the Pacific Division since the 1981-82 season.

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Johnson increased his intensity. He scored 24 points, had 17 rebounds and 17 assists. He recorded his 17th triple-double of the season with 6:32 in the third quarter, just after the Lakers had repelled the final Nugget attempt to get into the game.

Support came from numerous inspired Lakers. James Worthy had 26 points and 11 rebounds, Byron Scott 25 points and A.C. Green 19 points and eight rebounds. And, in his third consecutive strong performance off the bench, Orlando Woolridge scored 21 points in 20 minutes.

The Lakers built as much as a 23-point, third-quarter lead after a brief Denver rally. The Nuggets outscored the Lakers, 16-8, in the first five minutes, closing to within 12 points.

But the Lakers regrouped when Johnson made a three-point shot. That was followed by consecutive three-point plays by Green and Worthy. In two minutes, the Lakers had a 91-70 lead, and the Nuggets’ threat was over.

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Recently, the Lakers have felt threatened by the Suns, who have made up four games on the Lakers in less than two weeks.

After forcing the Nuggets to shoot only 43.6%--Lafayette Lever led the Nuggets with 26 points, nine rebounds and eight assists--Riley said he thought it was about time the Lakers remembered their lofty position in the NBA hierarchy.

“As this whole thing has progressed, the one thing we had but got back tonight is the identity of who we are,” Riley said. “It was the lack of self-knowledge of who we are as a basketball team.

“We haven’t been walking it and talking it and showing it. What we have been showing is doubts and fears. Hell, you’ve got to get out there and fight for it and defend it. That’s what we’re all about. We’re the two-time defending champions. It’s ours until somebody takes it away. We can’t let anyone talk us out of it.”

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One inspired effort does not ensure a Laker revival. But with three games remaining--at home against Sacramento on Thursday night, at Portland on Friday night and home on Sunday against Seattle--the Lakers say they are certain they will not lose any of them.

“Maybe this is what we needed,” Johnson said. “We gotta play our game and it will kick in. We needed a challenge, and it’s here now.”

Even if the Lakers lose one of the remaining three, and the Suns win their remaining three games, the Lakers still will be the Western Conference’s top-seeded team because of a better record against Pacific Division opponents.

But the Lakers say they do not want to win by a tiebreaking procedure. It would offend them. “Not since I’ve been here have we not won the division,” Scott said. “It’s foreign for us to think about coming in second. The immediate mission is to win the next three games.”

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Laker Notes

Team doctors determined Tuesday that Laker reserve center Mark McNamara will miss three to six weeks with a severely sprained right ankle. Jerry West, Laker general manager, was expected to meet with the coaching staff after Tuesday night’s game to decide whether to put McNamara on the injured list and replace him with a player from the Continental Basketball Assn. Most likely, though, McNamara will be out for the length of the playoffs. The Lakers must turn in a playoff roster by 9 p.m. Sunday. McNamara, walking with crutches, said his ankle felt better after receiving a cortisone injection. “There are two things in my favor,” McNamara said. “It didn’t swell much, and I got immediate treatment . . . after it happened. But the doctors said that there is some tear of the ligament.” . . . Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who missed Monday’s practice with back problems, said his condition is not serious. “It hasn’t been that bad recently,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “But I did something to it in the Clipper game (Saturday night). I think a muscle got squeezed in or something. But I’m fine.”

Tickets to Laker home games in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs will go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday at the Forum. Priority numbers will be distributed at 9 a.m.


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