Bad as it was on the court for the Los Angeles Lakers today, it was more embarrassing in their dressing room. With a straight face, a reporter inquired of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: "What sort of problems did Earl Cureton present?"
None, actually, and Abdul-Jabbar said as much, after he wiped a look of incredulity off his face. For the first time in 10 playoff games, the Lakers lost today--and they were blaming themselves more than applauding the Philadelphia 76ers.
"Too lackadaisical," Robert McAdoo said.
Too what? In the second game of the NBA finals, with a 1-up advantage, with a chance to all but clinch the title?
"There's a tendency to do that when you're undefeated in the playoffs," he said, shifting feet in a bucket of ice water as he sat at his locker. "We didn't execute at all offensively."
Not quite at all. Michael Cooper was closer to the truth.
"Don't think we played a quarter of good basketball," he said. "The Sixers played very, very well--and we didn't concentrate."
Specifically, this is what mental dawdling meant during the 110-94 loss: Magic Johnson, with inside position, gets outleaped by Julius Erving and a missed Sixer free throw becomes two points; Cooper botches a slam dunk on which he is fouled, then misses both free throws; Jamaal Wilkes throws the ball away during a many-on-few fast break; Norm Nixon could stand on the Pennsylvania border and not hit New Jersey with the ball.
"Defense was good at times," Abdul-Jabbar said, "and nonexistent at times. We can't expect to win with defense like that. When Norm isn't hitting (he was three for 14), they don't have to guard him. They can double me, or some others."
He thought the Lakers were unselfish to a fault.
"When they started to double and triple me," he said, "we kinda overpassed a lot of times. When we did shoot, they didn't fall. And we weren't getting any offensive rebounds."
Oh, yes. About Earl Cureton. He's the young Sixer center, their third of three who was sadly symbolic of this day for the Lakers. Forced onto the court for 15 minutes with Caldwell Jones and Darryl Dawkins in foul trouble, he was a factor simply because he did not hurt Philadelphia.
Against arguably the sport's finest offensive center, Cureton, with help, held his own. Just two for seven from the field, he had eight rebounds. And when he left the game, the Sixers usually had a larger lead than when he entered.
That's why some were pursuing The Cureton Factor.
The Lakers were looking at themselves for answers.
"Once we had five shots at the basket," Johnson said, "and couldn't get anything out of it. Nothing happened."
"Couldn't hammer anything in with a sledgehammer those final six minutes," Coach Pat Riley said.
That was after L.A. closed to 98-90.
"We were going very well then," Riley said. "Our energy level was high. But we only got four points the rest of the way."
Grudgingly, he praised the Sixers.
"Just determined," he said. "They went after the damn thing. Their attitude was terrific. Of course, it was a must game for 'em. Really a must game."
Riley added that the Lakers were "happy."
They came here with a chance at history, a 12-game sweep though the playoffs, but they needed just one victory to tilt the home-court advantage their way. They got it in Game 1, with a 31-point turnaround after falling behind early.
"We didn't try to establish that pattern again," Abdul-Jabbar said of L.A.'s drifting behind again today.
"Just a loss," Johnson said. "No big thing."
The major problem was not getting enough rebounds.
"Our traps get us steals," Riley said, "push them out farther on offense. But they also leave us vulnerable for offensive rebounds. That's what has to be different for us."
"We made our comeback," McAdoo added, "but this time they made the crucial shots. They either got inside the traps for dunks or hit the outside shots."
Also, Sixer Coach Billy Cunningham was more conscious of calling time today when the Laker Express seemed about to shift into overdrive.
For neutral fans and reporters, there is no more themeless, predictable, essentially dull affair than the second game of a playoff series with the visitors ahead, 1-0. Not having to win, they often at least seem as though they don't try to win after early adversity.
So the level of postgame questioning sometimes dips to the level of play on the court.
"We didn't want to lose," Abdul-Jabbar said at one point.
What followed from Abdul-Jabbar was the best analysis of the day: "After the second game in L.A. is played (Thursday), we'll get a clearer picture of who is doing well."