It was a game in which all the Laker soft spots were fully exploited, a tribute to Denver's interim coach, Donnie Walsh. None of L.A.'s guards, not Ron Boone, Lou Hudson or Jim Price, could match Thompson, who flew over the Lakers for 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting, even dunking over Abdul-Jabbar. The 6'2" Nixon could do little with the 6'6" Charlie Scott, and the Laker forwards, Don Ford, Adrian Dantley and Jamaal Wilkes, were so obsessed with releasing for the fast break every time a Denver shot went up that their rebounding contributions were negligible.
At the other end, West's decision to start the defensive-minded Ford instead of offensive-minded Dantley only gave Denver the luxury of double-and triple-teaming Abdul-Jabbar every time he touched the ball, and he made only two of six shots in the first half.
Scott crowed that the Nuggets had humiliated a team that "is so much better than us on paper, it's ridiculous."
But West was not laying all the blame, or even most of it, on his center. "We've got to do something else with Issel," he said. "If Kareem plays a normal defensive position, layups just don't happen."
After practice on Thursday in Los Angeles, Abdul-Jabbar looked almost pitiful, nervously and timidly sidestepping people two-thirds his size if they held a notebook or a microphone. "I'm not allowed to have my say around here," he said when finally cornered. "What would it matter anyway? You know, I could have gone outside and played Issel a lot tougher the other night. Is that what they wanted? Good. Then we would have lost by a lot more points. I've got to try to do what Jerry wants. As long as I have to play Issel, I try to stay somewhere in the middle and split the difference. What else can I do?"
The fact of the matter is that this Laker team, assembled by their reclusive and baronial owner, Jack Kent Cooke, not West, is terribly ill-suited to Abdul-Jabbar's game. There is no power forward, the guards can't rebound, and most of the players are either less than competent or overmatched on defense. And their rebounding! During the regular season the five Laker playoff starters together had 32 fewer offensive rebounds than Houston's Malone.
"Jamaal plays his heart out," says Abdul-Jabbar, "but he weighs 190 pounds. A.D. [Dantley] is 6'5". He can't guard someone 6'8". I've got to rebound and I've got to guard Issel and I've got to score and I've got to...you see? It's impossible to do everything. A radio guy said, 'Kareem, if you played 100% every night you'd be unbeatable.' I said, 'One hundred percent of what?' I fully believe that accomplishing 100% of what people expect of me is absolutely impossible. That's why when I see those adolescent comments by Wilt Chamberlain I have to say it's very easy to talk like that when you don't have to play every night."
Though West is prone to let candor get the best of him, Kareem is usually the last player to drive West to throw up his hands in disgust. "Believe me," he says. "If every player understood and cooperated like Kareem we'd have far fewer problems. Him you only have to tell once. We're not a super team. We have glaring weaknesses. People blame Kareem for everything, if they're not blaming me. This team has averaged 48 wins over the past three seasons, and I'll tell you what. I don't care if he's at the top of his game, past it or underneath it—without Kareem we don't beat anybody. This team just doesn't complement him at all."
Which is why West probably won't be coaching the Lakers next season. "I don't need this," he says. "I can't take it. Sometimes I think I'm a hell of a coach. But sometimes I think I stink."
On Friday night he was a genius. He made the expected move of switching Abdul-Jabbar's defensive assignment from Issel to Boswell, and put Ford on Issel. Kareem scored six of the first eight Laker points, but in defending his office, he picked up three fouls in the first 4½ minutes. Still, by the end of the first quarter the Lakers led 29-22, Kareem was 5 for 5, and Issel and Thompson, who was being guarded by Boone, had one field goal each.