He took the show on the road for the first time Tuesday night and the rest of the Lakers were glad to be along for the ride. He played, he smiled, he impressed. Next!
The Denver Nuggets were the warm-up act this time, and then Magic Johnson stepped into the spotlight right on cue. First he won the fans’ hearts, having been greeted by a standing ovation upon checking in, then he helped the Lakers win the game, 99-78, before 17,171 at McNichols Arena by getting 16 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds.
Four games into The Comeback, he has two double-doubles. He is averaging 17.8 points, 7.8 assists and 6.8 rebounds without more than 33 minutes on any night or top conditioning. He has the Lakers at 3-1 since the return.
Only the triple-double is missing from his updated resume. That is a glaring omission, even so early in the return, because he has made two good runs at it and because of Johnson himself. He has 137, 78 more than anybody else since the statistic was kept for the first time, in 1979, and 110 more than the next-closest active player, Michael Jordan.
In the last eight days, Johnson has come close twice. And missed twice.
“I wanted it,” he said. “But the rebounds kept going so many different ways but my way. Now I’ve missed it twice. But I’ll get it.”
Against Golden State, in his opener, he had 19 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in only 27 minutes. Against the Nuggets, he played all but the final 7.5 seconds of the fourth quarter, which included a lot of garbage time, in an attempt to get the triple-double, but fell short again.
There were other factors at work once the Lakers built a 13-point lead with 3:49 remaining. They are not as glamorous but are much more important for the long run. Emphasize the long run.
Johnson figures he is still about three weeks away from being in NBA playing condition, so the road work against the Nuggets did him some good. After his 33 minutes, his needle read EMPTY. The altitude was also a factor.
“I wanted to come here and I wanted to get a lot of minutes,” he said after another versatile night, this time having defended shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards. “This was a true test for me. It’ll help me get in shape.”
With the newcomer in the lineup, the Lakers turned a five-point lead into a rout, and against a team coming off a victory over the Chicago Bulls two nights earlier.
The 17-9 run that led to the 13-point cushion? Johnson had a hand in 11 of the points, scoring four and passing off for three assists, one that Anthony Peeler converted into a three-point basket.
“It’s a lot of confidence,” Nick Van Exel said after the Lakers won for the 10th time in their last 12 games. “We’ve got a great guy playing with us now who knows how to push the ball, when to slow it up, who to go to in certain situations. Everybody’s responding to it.
“Now, it’s more like guys playing. He’s fitting with us and we’re fitting in with him. The first game, it was more like, ‘What’s Magic going to do? Look at Magic.’ Now, everybody’s more comfortable and it’s working well.”
Added Elden Campbell, when asked about the emotional lift Johnson brings: “When you come off the bench with those kind of stats, [shoot]. It doesn’t matter. Sixteen points, 12 assists, nine rebounds--you don’t have to be emotional. You can be whatever you want.”
Magic will be Magic.
Play was stopped with 4:14 to play when blood from Dikembe Mutombo was brushed onto teammate Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. . . . Cedric Ceballos led all scorers with 27 points and had eight rebounds. Elden Campbell had 14 points and 10 rebounds for his fifth double-double in the last seven games, and Vlade Divac contributed 14 points and 12 rebounds. . . . Mutombo led the Nuggets with 20 points, 17 rebounds and eight blocked shots, but Abdul-Rauf was held to 10 points on four-of-13 shooting after getting 32 and 33 points in the first two games against the Lakers. “Nick [Van Exel] and Sedale [Threatt] are primarily responsible,” Laker Coach Del Harris said. “But they got a lot of help every time he came off a pick.”
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Game 4--Tracking Magic Johnson’s comeback:
Min. FG FT Pts. Reb. Ast. 33 3-5 (.600) 10-12 (.833) 16 9 12
Min. FG FT Pts. Reb. Ast. 30.8 (.475) (.816) 17.8 6.8 7.8
Min. FG FT Pts. Reb. Ast. 36.9 (.521) (.848) 19.7 11.4 7.3
LAKERS BEFORE MAGIC 24-18 (.571)
LAKERS WITH MAGIC 3-1 (.750)