The Los Angeles Lakers wasted no time going from world champions to Wimps of the West last season. After they lost in the Western Conference finals to Houston, they were branded as a team that couldn't rebound and wouldn't play tough defense, a bunch of showtime specialists who stubbornly stuck to their running game when everyone else in the NBA was turning to power. Has anyone, besides Don Regan, fallen out of favor faster than the Lakers?
"Everyone keeps saying we're fading and fading," said Earvin Johnson Friday night, leaning back against a locker, smiling. "I just hope we keep on fading like that."
The Wimps of the West had just finished pounding Boston 117-110, ending the Celtics' 48-game winning streak in Boston Garden. The Celtics hadn't lost on the parquet since Dec. 6, 1985, and that game was a fluke, a case of a mediocre team (Portland) blowing out a great team on a bad night. The Lakers' win was no fluke. To achieve it, they did the things that Boston is supposed to do—like outscore the Celtics 20-8 over the final 8:24. The Lakers got more rebounds (38-32), forced more bad shots with a frenetic defense (Boston was 7 for 19 in the final period) and generally outhustled and outmuscled a Celtic team that suddenly looks old and vulnerable.
And tired. Never mind Magic Johnson's 31-point, eight-assist, seven-rebound line on a night when, because of aching knees, he said he was only "90 percent." Or A.C. Green's 11 rebounds. Or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's six fourth-period skyhooks, which ultimately made the difference. The most telling numbers for Boston were these: 44, 43, 43, 42 and 41. Those were the minutes played by the Celtic starters—Robert Parish, Larry Bird, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson and Kevin McHale—and they are commensurate with their season averages. "No, fatigue was not a factor," said Parish, who forced Abdul-Jabbar to the bench with early foul trouble only to be force-fed Kareem's late skyhooks. "We just went cold at the end. We couldn't write 2 with a pencil."
December 22, 1986
But why? Fatigue, said both Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper. And they are correct. At this point in the season, no one would notice if the vaunted Celtic bench were trucked to Boston Common and used as a perch for pigeons.
Like a yapping puppy, Fate has been nipping at the heels of the Celtics, who breezed through last season as if in a protective bubble. The reversal of fortunes began in June when a cocaine overdose claimed Boston's first-round draft choice, Len Bias. "He would have been one of the greatest ever," said Bird. "I thought we had won another championship on draft day." So far this season Ainge (bad back), Bird (ailing right Achilles tendon) and first guard off the bench Jerry Sichting (intestinal virus) have missed 14 games among them, while Scott Wedman, the only Celtic who can approximate Bird's outside touch, was placed on the injured list last week because of persistent left heel problems. Even coach K.C. Jones missed four games last month with strep throat. And...well, there is one more injury almost too painful to mention. There's no easy way to say it, but here goes: Bill Walton is having foot problems. "Having Bill here was like a time bomb," said Bird. And now it's gone off.
Perhaps Walton should have read the tea leaves when he broke the little finger of his left hand while playing one-on-one with Parish in the preseason. Instead, to maintain his conditioning, he took to furiously pedaling a stationary bicycle and somehow managed to injure his right ankle. The injury is officially labeled "an inflammation of the outside joint of the right ankle," but given Walton's history of stress fractures, it was bound to be more complicated than that. Walton was to have a bone scan of the ankle on Monday, and there was a strong possibility that arthroscopic surgery would soon follow. "I had to do something," said Walton on Saturday. "It wasn't getting better on its own."
Walton hasn't played a minute this season, and he's frustrated. But he is also optimistic about the possible surgery. "I know everybody's written me off for this season, but I think there's time. Anyway, I've been written off before, right?"
At least the surgery would get him away from his merciless teammates, who spend much of their practice time subjecting him to good-natured abuse. "I keep hearing about Bill getting a CAT scan," says McHale, "but what they should give this guy is a brain scan." Walton takes it all in good spirit, but the grins are freezing fast on his face these days. "It's killing me not to be able to play," he says.
Oh, how swift is that tumble from grace, as the Lakers discovered last year when they lost four in a row to the Rockets in the playoffs. Take that team to the beach, everyone said then, and leave it there. What L.A. needed to do was get bigger and tougher. So Pat Riley, whose genteel GQ wardrobe hides a stubborn man, went out and got a team that is smaller and quicker.
Well, not that much smaller, really. But he did let 6'9", 240-pound enforcer Maurice Lucas go, ostensibly giving Luke's minutes to Green, an unproved second-year forward. All of the other constants in Laker Land—Magic creating, Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy dancing in the paint, Cooper coming out of the bullpen—remain the same.
But that is on the surface. Underneath, the Lakers have made a few fundamental changes. Riley sent his players letters in the off-season, urging each of them to have "a career-best season." Riley let it be known that no one had exactly "careered" last year. Specifically he felt that Byron Scott, Kurt Rambis, Cooper and Worthy had slipped a notch from the championship season of '84-85.
Worthy went to work with the weights and added 10 pounds to last season's 225. "I just felt I needed to stand firmer when I posted up," he said. Translation: Firm was how McHale and Houston's Akeem Olajuwon stood against the Lakers. Worthy is still trying to get comfortable with his added weight—Riley says he's trying to "grunt the ball up" instead of using his natural touch—but against Boston he scored his 25 points with a perfect balance of power and quickness.
Abdul-Jabbar, who should be frozen one day so that medical science can take a closer look at this rare physical specimen, also tossed around barbells in the off-season, bulking up from 250 pounds to 265, while lowering his body fat by 3%. He's visibly bigger in the buttocks and upper legs, a fact that Parish said he noticed right away. Said Kareem, "The extra weight helps me maintain balance when there's a lot of jostling inside." Translation: Both Boston and Houston "outjostled" him to a lot of rebounds last season.
With his new Adrian Dantley-model derrière, Abdul-Jabbar was able to pin Parish inside and score on power moves. And when Parish pushed him away from the basket, Kareem simply swished the skyhook. He turns 40 on April 16. The skyhook is 20 years younger and still going strong.
Magic didn't lift any weights in the off-season, but he did decide to lift more of the Laker offense onto his shoulders. "Pat told me he wanted me to shoot more," said Johnson. And? "I agreed with him." For the first time in his eight-year career, in fact, Magic is leading the Lakers in scoring (with 21.3 per game), while taking only 16 shots per game, just four more than his career average. He still scores on his coast-to-coast drives—he had three against Boston—but now he's posting up and getting shots off designed plays in the half-court offense.
The Lakers are not without their problems: Magic's ailing knees and the lack of a strong backup center are two of them. This team is by no means unbeatable. But the victory on Friday was decisive and sweet—green-and-white is now chasing purple-and-gold, not vice versa.
The Celtics, meanwhile, are hardly dead, though they may now be only the third-best team in the NBA, behind Atlanta and the Lakers. McHale and Parish, tired as they might be, are playing the best ball of their careers, and Bird—here's news—has been outstanding. What concerns them, though, is the future and what it holds for the 7-foot redhead whose inspired play off the bench ensured them a championship last season.
"Bill will come back," Bird said. "He has to. The only way we have a great chance of winning a championship is if Robert Parish is rested and Bill is playing well." Then he smiled and made a joke. "You know, we never had all these injuries till Walton came." The jokes will continue for a while. But if Walton doesn't make it back soon, no one in Boston is going to be laughing.