Just when the Philadelphia 76ers thought they could play with the Los Angeles Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson have shown otherwise.
Abdul-Jabbar had a devastating all-around game (22 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocked shots) Thursday night as the Lakers won, 111-101, at the Forum to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven National Basketball Association championship finals. Johnson, who has presented matchup problems for the 76ers throughout the series, outplayed Julius Erving when he guarded the 76ers forward in the last two games.
The Lakers' record in three playoff series this season is 11-1. They have an opportunity to win their second NBA championship in three years Sunday (WDVM-TV-9 at 2 p.m.) in Philadelphia's Spectrum, the building in which the Lakers clinched the championship in Game 6 in 1980.
"It could be as simple as they're just better than us," said 76ers forward Mike Bantom. "We've done all the adjusting we can and they're still killing us."
Four teams have overcome 1-3 deficits in the playoffs before, but no team has done it in the finals.
"All I know is I can't see anyone beating us three times in a row," said Lakers guard Norm Nixon. "If they're a great team and we keep beating them by 10 points or more, I guess that says a lot about how good we are."
Routed by 21 points in Game 3, the 76ers adjusted to the Laker's trap and controlled their fast-breaking -- somewhat. But in meeting those objectives, they were still being overwhelmed, particularly by Abdul-Jabbar. He scored 23, 16 and 22 points in the first three games, besides getting 7, 6 and 11 rebounds.
"It is a bit demoralizing," said guard Maurice Cheeks of the 76ers. "He's like money in the bank for them. No matter what they do wrong, they have him to fall back on."
When the 76ers guarded Abdul-Jabbar with one man, he scored virtually at will; when they double-teamed him, he passed to the open man.
The Lakers' trapping, college-style zone defense is effective because they have Abdul-Jabbar to cover for them.
"No matter what you do, he's in the back of your mind," added Cheeks. "You can't even relax after you stop their break. You just start thinking, 'Oh, no. Now they are going to the big guy.'"
This series is so lopsided that Nixon, the star of Game 3 with 29 points, made only four of 18 shots in Game 4 and the Lakers still won easily.
The two games played at the Forum followed the same pattern. The Lakers took a big early lead, and the 76ers tried everything to get back in the game.
Thursday, Abdul-Jabbar made six straight baskets in the first and second quarters as the Lakers built a 15-point lead.
Los Angeles Coach Pat Riley made one major adjustment for Game 3. He stayed with it in Game 4 and the change has had a major effect on the outcome of the last two games. He put Johnson against Erving and Johnson has outplayed the 76ers' star.
In 43 minutes Thursday, Johnson had 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and didn't commit a turnover. Erving scored 25 points on 11-of-15 shooting, but had only three rebounds -- none offensive -- and four assists. He also committed five turnovers, including a bad pass in the final 90 seconds, when the 76ers were making a run at the Lakers.
In the last two games, Johnson has averaged 23 points (while shooting 67 percent from the field), 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists. Erving has averaged 23 points (while shooting 59 percent), three rebounds and 3.5 assists.
Johnson, as well as Abdul-Jabbar, has given the Lakers a dimension the 76ers can't match.
"Their defense is basic, but their transition game is awesome," said Erving. "They're looking for that fast-paced game and they get a lot of points from it, whether we score or not. At times, we can be awesome, but their game has more dimensions than ours."
Philadelphia's Bobby Jones, playing with a hip pointer, rebounded from a scoreless Game 3 with 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists Thursday. His play had little bearing on the outcome, however, suggesting what many observers feel: it doesn't matter what the 76ers do, they'll always be a step behind the Lakers.