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When Ford's shift as Issel's personal mugger ended, Wilkes moved onto him, and off the bench came Dantley. In six minutes A.D. scored 16 of 17 Laker points. But when Dantley cooled off, so did Los Angeles, because Abdul-Jabbar was trying to avoid foul trouble. A 43-32 lead dipped to 49-47 at halftime as Thompson finally shook Boone for three late baskets.
Thompson was fired up because he was taking a beating—a first-period collision with Boone opened up a gash over his right eye—yet he had not once been to the foul line. He hit two more quick baskets in the third quarter to put Denver ahead 51-49. But the game seemed to reach a turning point when Issel picked up his fourth foul and left the game for Kim Hughes with 1:27 gone in the third quarter.
Before West could exhale in relief—within nine seconds to be exact—Abdul-Jabbar had been whistled for his fourth and fifth fouls. Another turning point? Absolutely, but only because West had no intention of removing Kareem from the game. "I knew it was a big gamble," said West, "but at this time of the year you have to go with your best players. Kareem's so smart I knew I could count on him to make the right moves."
"I didn't know how long I could last," said Abdul-Jabbar, "but on this team I have to stay in the game."
In the ensuing 3½ minutes the Lakers ran a 12-2 spurt, and the enraged Kareem had a hand in every Laker point. Twice he made ferocious drives to draw fouls; he grabbed three rebounds; he assisted Ford on a short jumper; he stole the ball from Anthony Roberts to trigger a fast break.
"I wish he didn't have the five fouls," said Denver Assistant Coach George Irvine. "They let him do anything he wanted after that."
The Lakers had a 68-58 lead when Abdul-Jabbar finally sat down. But Thompson promptly hit three straight long jumpers and Issel scored twice to bring Denver to within three, 76-73. Shots went up at a dizzying rate in the fourth quarter and, with Kareem back in his office but staying out of harm's way, the Nuggets ran five layups right at him. The Lakers managed to stay on top, 104-101.
Although Dantley and Wilkes would finish with 25 and 26 points respectively—up from 15 and 17 in Game 1—and Nixon would chip in 16 assists, Abdul-Jabbar scored enough points in the final 3:22—eight—to win the game, well, all by himself.
Denver's locker-room sentiments naturally centered on the officiating. "Look at David," said Walsh. "He's bleeding from the mouth and eye, he scored 29 points and makes one trip to the foul line all night. It's a joke."
"All I know," said Thompson, "is that I got more stitches than free throws."