Just minutes after his Los Angeles Lakers had defeated the Boston Celtics in six games to win the NBA championship in June, coach Pat Riley, a student of motivation, decided to set the psychological groundwork for the 1987-88 season. As he stood in the delirium of the Laker locker room, dodging jets of champagne, exchanging hugs with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, warding off every celebrity-sniffer in Tinsel Town, Riley lay in wait for someone to mention the R word.
"Can you repeat?" Riley was finally and inevitably asked.
"I guarantee it," he said, staring down his questioners.
Pat, you said "guarantee"?
"That's right," said Riley.
Later Magic would wonder if "Pat had drunk too much champagne," but, no, Riley kept on saying guarantee, right through the summer, until the Lakers gathered at Loyola Marymount College in October for a media day, before heading to Palm Springs for training camp and on into the season. Riley had decided that the inability of any NBA team to repeat as champion in the almost two decades since the Celtics last won back-to-back titles, in 1968 and '69, was partly a failure of will. So on that day in June, while everyone else in the L.A. organization was savoring the end of one championship season, Riley began, in his words, to "attack" a second, confronting the R word at every mention. Ten months later, as the Lakers prepare for the playoffs, what can we say about Riley's strategy? Only this: It may be working.
With a 56-18 record through last weekend, Los Angeles is once again the team to beat. (Boston, which was 54-21, had the second-best record.) Magic returned Friday after having missed 10 of Los Angeles's previous 12 games since he was first injured on March 10 with a strained right groin. He scored 16 points and had nine assists in a 126-107 win over the Clippers Friday, but in a 119-109 loss to Portland Saturday, he had nine points and 12 assists and said he felt rusty.
Throughout the season L.A. has had remarkable success in what Riley calls checkpoint games. The Lakers came from 15 points behind to beat the Hawks, one of the NBA's stronger teams, in Atlanta on Feb. 19. On March 6, they snapped an 11-game Maverick winning streak in Dallas. So much for their leading rivals in the West. They've beaten the Central Division-leading Detroit Pistons on the road and at home. They're 4-0 against the potentially dangerous Houston Rockets. Need we mention the most obvious? Magic's banked buzzer-beater did in the Celtics 115-114 on Dec. 11 at Boston Garden, and a career-high 38 points from Byron Scott (see box, page 57) paced a 115-106 defeat of the Celtics at the Forum on Valentine's Day. In each of the last two seasons, the team that prevailed in both regular-season Laker-Celtic games won the championship.
Before Johnson was injured, Los Angeles was on a 38-4 roll that began with its first game against Boston, a surge that put its record at a history-challenging 49-10. (Strangely, the 1977-78 Portland Trail Blazers—another Western Conference team that was attempting to win a second straight title—were an almost identical 50-10 when their leader, Bill Walton, went down with a foot injury. Walton didn't play the rest of the regular season and appeared only in the first two games of the conference semis, in which the Blazers were eliminated.) The Lakers might have kept on tearing up the league, even without Magic, had not a sprained left ankle sidelined Michael Cooper for 20 games. He returned on April 5, and his play has been erratic. "With Coop and me both out, that's like missing six guys because we play so many positions," says Johnson immodestly but not inaccurately.
As glad as the Lakers are to have Johnson back, they can't help but wonder what might have been. "We felt invincible before Magic got hurt," says Scott, who leads L.A. in scoring. "It's a feeling we could have carried right through the playoffs. There was nothing that could beat us."