The Los Angeles Lakers took a big early lead again tonight and then toyed with the Philadelphia 76ers most of the way before extending themselves to overcome a fourth-quarter challenge on their way to a 111-101 victory at the Forum.
The win gives the Lakers a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series and leaves them within one victory of their second National Basketball Association championship in three years.
The Lakers can win the series Sunday in Philadelphia at the Spectrum (WDVM-TV-9 at 2 p.m.). Only four teams have come back from that far down to win a seven-game series, but none has done it in the finals.
Earvin (Magic) Johnson and Jamaal Wilkes led the Lakers with 24 points each, and with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominating play inside with 22 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots, the 76ers were playing catchup the entire game.
"When we get those big early leads like we have the last two games, it really puts pressure on them," Abdul-Jabbar said, "because it changes the way they have to play, takes them out of their normal style."
The 76ers missed their first five shots and were down by as many as 13 points in the first quarter. They trailed by 15 at halftime and by 19 in the third period before making a fourth-quarter run at the Lakers.
The 76ers cut the margin to even points twice, the last time at 105-98 with 3:17 remaining. They had a chance to cut it to five on the next three possessions, but turned the ball over each time as Darryl Dawkins, Caldwell Jones and Julius Erving threw passes away. The Lakers helped keep the 76ers close during that sequence by missing three straight shots.
They finally scored, and ensured the victory on a lob pass from Johnson to Bob McAdoo for a layup that gave Los Angeles a 107-98 lead with 1:15 remaining.
"The clock really worked against us, but that's our own fault," said Erving, who made 11 of 15 shots and scored 25 points. "We've got to find a way to get off to a better start and make it a real basketball game. The way we've played the last two games, we've always had to make some changes and shuffle around to try and get back in the game almost as soon as it starts."
Johnson, who also had eight rebounds and seven assists, said the Lakers "got a bit too relaxed late in the game. They came back, but we didn't lose our poise."
Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham said the 76ers put themselves in a hole in the first half "because we didn't respond the way we were supposed to to some of the things they did to us. The Lakers weren't the same team when we were coming after them that they were when they were building the lead."
Lakers' Coach Pat Riley agreed, somewhat.
"We bogged down and played a little too conservative when they were making their push," he said. "But it's difficult to hold on to a 15- to 20-point lead when you get it in the first half."
The Sixers used a trapping, double-teaming defense, similar to the one the Lakers used against them. But the Lakers are better suited to handle that sort of pressure. They moved the ball around and usually got a shot inside when they weren't fast-breaking.
"We have so many great passers and everybody was moving," said Riley. "The 76ers took us out of our offense and so we just went on basketball instinct."
The Lakers lived off the fast break again tonight, but they were also looking to Abdul-Jabbar more than usual. He had 14 of his points on seven-of-10 shooting in the first half.
"Kareem was tough tonight," said Cunningham. "He made some incredible moves and when we double-teamed him, he made some great passes to guys cutting to the basket."
The most telling part of the game came midway through the third period, as Andrew Toney, who led all scorers with 28 points, steadily brought the 76ers back to trail by only 69-58. The Lakers called time, and then got a three-point play by Abdul-Jabbar on a hook shot and foul against Caldwell Jones, another three-point play by Wilkes on a fast break and a layup by Johnson after an assist from Abdul-Jabbar.
The 76ers were quiet after that until their final run.
Cunningham, whose team led Boston, 3-1, in the Eastern Conference finals before winning in seven games, said his team knows what it's like to be in the position he is in now, "but from the other side. It just means we have to win three games."
"The 76ers aren't going to fold," said Abdul-Jabbar.
"We don't have anything won yet," said Johnson. "All this means is that we have a 3-1 lead. We can't relax.