Who were those masked men?
The Lakers rode into the Forum on Friday night for the first time in 12 days, returning after having struggled on offense for the entire month and after losses in six of the previous 10 games. Then they quickly rode back out on the back of the Sacramento Kings, cruising to a 116-83 rout before 16,189 as Cedric Ceballos had 27 points and Anthony Peeler added 18 off the bench.
"It's nice to see the guys play so well," Laker Coach Del Harris said. "That had to be fun for everybody on the team. It was fun for me to watch."
And fun for Eddie Jones to not have to only watch. The one Laker actually wearing a mask--to protect the broken nose he suffered Tuesday at Milwaukee--he endured a wait for the fiberglass face guard to arrive, then returned to action after a one-game absence.
Most of his statistics were unimpressive: five points on two-of-six shooting, two assists, two rebounds, two steals, 24 minutes. The one worth raving about? He got hit on the nose four times, but had no problems.
"It's a funny feeling," Jones said of his newest piece of equipment, held tight by Velcro straps. "You feel it on your face and you also see the outline around your face."
Making the game wasn't the tough part for Jones, who had been cleared to play since Wednesday. It's his mask that was questionable.
The fitting and production had been a rush job, with arrival at LAX on a flight from Chicago at the scheduled 6:22 p.m., about 80 minutes before tipoff. A ball boy was dispatched for pickup and delivery to the Forum.
"With my luck," Jones said, "I might have got in an accident."
One problem: The package was addressed to Gary Vitti, the Laker trainer, so the person in the cargo office would not release it to the ball boy. The clock was ticking. They finally reached a compromise.
The airline employee would get a pair of tickets for that night's game and the ball boy would get the goods.
The mask arrived in the locker room a few minutes after 7. Jones went back into the starting lineup--"It's not an injury that keeps you from doing anything," Harris said--without benefit of adjustment time.
Jones didn't appear any less aggressive because of the injury, stepping into passing lanes on defense for steals and driving through traffic to the basket on offense. Of course, it wasn't only him--most of the Lakers had great success inside all night.
They built an 18-2 lead after 6:09, by which time Sacramento Coach Garry St. Jean had already called two full timeouts and one 20-second. The cushion was 17, 29-12, at the end of the first quarter, and Ceballos, continuously getting open underneath, had 14 points and five rebounds.
The closest the Kings came to a comeback the rest of the way was when they cut the deficit to 11 early in the second quarter. About five minutes later, the Lakers had pushed it back to 24.
A night after losing to the Clippers at the Sports Arena, Sacramento didn't even get its 50th point until 13:47 remained in the game. Part of the problem was that the Kings' poor shooting--36.6% in the first half and 38.1% on the night--and part was that they were aiming into a wall, like that stretch of the third quarter when the Lakers blocked four consecutive shots over three possessions.
Maybe the bad trip wasn't quite so bad in retrospect. Found among the Lakers' disappointment over the 2-4 record on the just completed Eastern swing were contributions from a little-used player, Derek Strong, and another returning from injury, Anthony Peeler. But probably nothing was more encouraging to the Lakers than the play of Nick Van Exel, who left the Forum on Dec. 10 in a tailspin and returned Friday riding something of a hot streak. He didn't reach double-figure assists in any of the six games, but he had a very good assist-to-turnover ratio of 4-1. After going three for 13 from the field against the Knicks in the opener, he shot 46.2% the final five games. And his three-point shooting, a favorite weapon, soared to 47.4% in the six outings. His final per-game averages for the trip were 21 points, 6.2 assists and 1.8 turnovers. Said Coach Del Harris: "I think that even though we only went 2-4 on that trip that we're a better team tonight than the day we left."