Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers were significant favorites over the Denver Nuggets in the 1985 Western Conference Finals. LA was not only the more talented team, but they were also a hungry group after throwing away the 1984 title to the Boston Celtics. The Nuggets, however, weren’t about to play dead.
Led by high-scoring Alex English, the Nuggets were in the process of blowing out the Lakers in Game 2 when a frustrated Abdul-Jabbar put Denver’s Danny Schayes in a headlock as both benches cleared, setting off a wild scene in LA.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar struggled in Game 2 of the WCF against the Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets were one of the NBA’s most exciting teams in the mid-1980s. To beat them, you had to outscore them as defense was an afterthought for coach Doug Moe. After the Lakers thumped the Nuggets 139-122 in the opener in LA, the Lakers found themselves with their backs against the wall in Game 2.
Abdul-Jabbar struggled with his patented skyhook, making just four of 16 shots from the floor. Magic Johnson also had a rough night shooting, misfiring on 11 of his 16 field-goal attempts.
It certainly wasn’t the Lakers’ night.
The Lakers trailed 66-59 at the half. The Nuggets then outscored LA by 19 points in the fourth quarter as Denver cruised to a 136-114 win to even the series.
The win, however, may have woken up Abdul-Jabbar and the listless Lakers.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lost his shot and his cool in Game 2
Things got very testy in the fourth quarter of Game 2. Abdul-Jabbar and Denver’s Danny Schayes had been battling in the paint throughout the game. Abdul-Jabbar finally had enough of the elbowing from Schayes and was slapped with a technical foul midway through the quarter after shoving the Nuggets’ big man.
Moments later, Schayes and Johnson got tangled up and went at it. Abdul-Jabbar then stepped in, getting Schayes in a headlock and wrestling him to the ground. Benches cleared. Fans threw things on the court.
“We were playing basketball,” Moe said, according to United Press International. “They were the ones throwing elbows and tackling us.”
Johnson had a different version.
“If you’re gonna get hit and accept it, you’re gonna get hit again and hit again,” he said. ‘You’ve got to put a stop to it. Schayes hit me in the eye with an elbow, and I decided to put a stop to it. Then the whole thing broke loose.”
Abdul-Jabbar was ejected with 6:18 remaining and his team trailing 113-97.
Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers won the next three games to advance to the NBA Finals
Moe knew his team was the clear underdog in the series and felt like they had nothing to lose.
“They won easy in the first game, and they thought they were going to win easy (in Game 2),” he said after the game. “I came in here thinking we had a chance to win. We didn’t win 52 games for nothing. We’re not chopped liver. They’re still the overwhelming favorite, and they may come back and beat us by 50. But we don’t give a damn. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
The Nuggets lost the next three games. The melee seemingly woke up Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers.
Abdul-Jabbar put up 27 points in Game 3 and then added 29 in Game 4. The Lakers emphatically ended the series at home in Game 5 with a 153-109 victory.
LA wasn’t finished there as the Lakers earned payback against the Celtics in the 1985 NBA Finals, winning in six games after letting the championship slip away the previous season.