Like a crippled army in the midst of a precariously uncertain battle, the Los Angeles Lakers decided today to try to cut their losses with a desperate gamble.

The Lakers, leading three games to two in the NBA finals, did not take injured superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his 33.8 point scoring average with them to Philadelphia today for Friday night's sixth game (WDVM-TV-9, 9 p.m.).

"It is extremely doubtful that Kareem will be able to play (Friday)," said Laker team physician Robert Kerlan, after the Lakers left here in the wee hours for Philly.

"By keeping him in Los Angeles for treatment of his sprained ankle. Kareem will be much-better prepared to play on Sunday if that (seventh) game is necessary," said Kerlan, whose prognosis for Abdul-Jabbar's availability Sunday was a cautious 50-50. w

"We can win without the big guy," insisted sixth-man Mike Cooper. "We'll just be that much more inspired."

Laker Coach Paul Westhead also insisted, of course, that victory without The Franchise was possible. More likely, the Lakers, who already have suspended a $250,000-a-year player and fired a head coach during this dramatic series, have made a daring move that is tantamount to forfeiting a game.

The Lakers realize that by escaping with a 108-103 win here Wednesday night -- with Abdul-Jabbar scoring 14 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter after having his sprained left ankle taped -- gave themselves the vital luxury of letting the giant heal.

When Abdul-Jabbar hobbled to the Laker dressing room here Wednesday night late in the third quarter of the fifth game of the NBA finals, a shudder of naked vulnerability ran through the Lakers.

"We were praying Kareem would come back," said assistant Pat Riley. "He's the man we live and die by. But we also knew we had to hold the fort. Sometimes, the best reaction you can have is raw fear."

"Everyone knew that without Kareem if we went flat, we'd be buried," said Westhead. "Those were the most crucial minutes of the championship series so far."

When the grimacing Abdul-Jabbar limiped to the trainer's table, the Lakers led by two points, 69-67. When he returned to start the fourth period, having missed four minutes, the Lakers somehow led by eight, 81-73, and were on their way to a 108-103 victory and a 3-2 series lead.

"My players read that (timeout) scene clearly and became very tall," said Westhead.

"In those minutes without Kareem, they all played well above their physical size," said the former Shakespeare professor. "Magic (Johnson) played relentless. (Jim) Chones grew to the occasion against (Darryl) Dawkins.

"At a moment like that, those players are playing for pride, for their life . . . or rather for their way of life. You have to realize that it means to grow up with basketball as the No. 1 form of expression in your life. If you lose in those pickup games as a kid, you get kicked out of the gym. Then where do you go and what do you do for the rest of the day?" said Westhead, who was just such scrapping street kid, growing up in West Philadelphia.

As the third quarter ended, Johnson tore a defensive rebound away from 7-foot-1 Caldwell Jones, soloed the length of the court, then lobbed a pass above rim level for Mike (Coop de Ville) Cooper for a layin at the buzzer.

The Forum crowd tried to raise the roof. Then when its ovation should have died, it increased.

"At first, I thought they were cheering for us," Westhead said. "Then I thought, 'Hey, somebody must be returning.'"

Kareem (Somebody) Abdul-Jabbar did return setting up one of the best championship fourth quarters imaginable.

In the tiny Laker training room, while getting ice, compression and tape on his ankle, the 7-foot-2 center said only one word.

"He was in pain, gritting teeth and the ankle was already swelling," said team physician Dr. Stephen Lombardo. "There was no way to tell if it was broken or not. I pressed on his ankle and asked, 'Does that hurt?'

"Obviously, it hurt a lot. He just said, 'No'" No NBA insider could doubt the next act of the drama.

"We knew we had to go to Kareem right away and find out," said Westhead. "And we knew what Philly would do. The doctor would try to pull them home by himself."

As the Lakers still talked and ruminated after midnight, only one player remained in the Sixers' clubhouse -- Julius Erving, slowly and methodically rubbing the soreness out of his muscles by kneading a lotion into them.

'The bus is leaving," said Lionel Hollins, sticking his head around the corner. "Shall we sent it back for you?"

"Got a ride, thanks," said Erving, who, in the fourth quarter, had been the Sixers' bus.

"It wasn't the time for fancy passes or strategy," said Erving with quiet dignity, thinking back on that fourth period when he had scored 16 of his 36 points while being double-teamed.

"It was time to score. The double-team?" he said, barely raising an eyebrow. "I was trying to ignore 'em, put'em up the best I knew how, take it to the hoop, get the best you can, draw the fouls if nothing else."

Erving's voice became almost inaudible. "It got us back, but it didn't get us over."

"Julius was frightening," said Westhead. "They'd isolate him. They did a nice job of jamming us with walls of multiple screens so our second double-team man couldn't even get out of the jam.

"But the shots he made," said Westhead, shaking his head. "Bank shots going left and falling away with people in his face.What's most depressing is that he made it look so easy."

The night's denouement, and perhaps the pivotal instant of these finals, came with 33 seconds to play with the score tied at 103.

"We called a play that we call 'Win-the-Game.'" Westhead said with a laugh. "We give to Magic and tell him to get it to Kareem."

Jabbar dunked the ball and the Doctor. "I got there late. I don't think I fouled him," said Erving. The officials (whom Sixer Coach Billy Cunningham berated as "atrocious," despite 15 seconds-half foul shots for Erving) thought otherwise. That three-point play -- the last of Abdul-Jabbar's 40 points -- was the winner.

"Thanks partner," said Laker owner Jerry Buss, shaking Westhead's hand only hours after announcing that Jack McKinney would not return as L.A. coach, leaving the way clear for Westhead. "Why do you always do this . . . take it to the wire and then pull it out?"

"We've worked the kinks out of the show,' said Westhead. "We think we're about ready for prime time.Maybe this series will prove that CBS is wrong (to relegate the NBA telecasts to the a.m. or non-prime time everywhere except L.A.). Both teams sure are doing the league justice."

"Well, we're proving all the experts wrong," said Buss, who, in his ragged-cuff bell-bottom designer jeans and ultrasuede jacket only needed a shopping bag full of confetti and a seltzer bottle to look exactly like Hollywood comic Rip Taylor.

"They say the Rams are patsies and all the Los Angeles teams are Hollywood patsies. Well, we shoved 'Hollywood' down their throats tonight."

"I agree," said Westhead with a weak smile.

"You better," said Buss, walking way.

What all agree upon is that the somewhat-troubled NBA has the championships of its dreams. Pro basketball needed glamor and star appeal, and that's what it has now, plus a needed dose of sound, basic basketball that makes shifts in strategy comprehensible and interesting.

A wealth of finesse, supporting players -- Norm Nixon and Keith Wilkes of L.A. or Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones of Philly -- is all very well. They are for the NBA addict.

What makes this showdown so special is that each team has a pair of vividly defined, dominant players who can do things which, until they arrived, were unheard-of in the history of their sport.

No NBA giant has ever been as deft and pleasing a pure athlete as Abdul-Jabbar. None of the handful of pro hulks -- such as Wilt Chamberlain or Wes Unseld -- who had the backboard -shattering strength of Darryl Dawkins has ever had his mobility and his flair for the wildly crowd-pleasing. Dawkins if far from a polished layer, and may never really be consistent, but is 21.6 point average thus far is, by a huge margin, the finest streak of offensive play of his life. t

"Early in the series, he was making those outside shots with nobody on him," said Westhead. "Now, he's making them with a 6-foot-11 guy (Chones) jumping two feet from his face."

No exegesis on the Erving text is necessary. Suffice it to say that a hundred replays of his reverse layup in Philly on Sunday will never convince some people that it really happened. When he says, "A force outside me has to help on shots like that," you have to wonder if Dr. J's real coach was Obi-Wan Kenobi.

As great as any joy in this series, however, is watching Magic Johnson's infectious desire to play every position on the court simultaneously.

No point guard has ever been 6-foot-9 before," said Westhead. "And no point guard has ever been able to play power forward before "But tonight," said Westhead, "when Kareem was out, we put Magic at center. He just took over the game at both ends."

"This basketball is just getting better all the time," said Johnson, who was in high school three years ago. "First, high school, then college, then the NCAA finals, then the pros. Now, this championship series is the best yet. It's the ultimate."