The Los Angeles lakers must watch where they walk these days, for the terrain around them is littered with erstwhile title contenders. Cleveland, Atlanta, Utah and Birdless Boston were all bounced from the playoffs in the first round. Dallas, the veteran team that extended L.A. to seven games in last year's Western Conference final, didn't even make it that far, having finished the season down in Lottery Land.
And the latest hopeful to make a thud? The tough and tenacious Seattle SuperSonics, the Western Conference version of the bad-boy Detroit Pistons. The Lakers completed a four-game second-round sweep of the Sonics on Sunday afternoon in Seattle with an improbable 97-95 victory. The Lakers were losing 41-12—that's right, by 29 points—early in the second quarter, but they kept chipping away at the Sonics' lead and won on some clutch sharpshooting by A. C. Green, their most uncertain offensive player.
"Heart of a champion," said Mychal Thompson, tapping his chest. "That's the reason we won."
Over in the Seattle locker room the feeling was shock tinged with admiration. "Far as I can see they haven't missed a beat," Seattle guard Dale Ellis said. Or, as L.A. coach Pat Riley put it, the Lakers were "focused," the latest in his growing lexicon of buzzwords.
And focused they were. A third straight NBA title is still eight wins away, but the Lakers seem to have stepped up their game a notch, drawing energy from their postseason experience. As guard Michael Cooper puts it: "This is our time of year."
The Lakers did not look so formidable during the regular season, however. Sure, they finished with the best record (57-25) in the West, as they have for the last eight seasons, but they struggled and sputtered along the way, particularly during a 7-7 stretch from March 19 to April 15. "We're the back-to-back world champions, and we haven't been walking it, talking it or showing it," Riley said after the Lakers blew out the Nuggets 142-118 in Los Angeles on April 18. New, different and even more interesting teams, like the Phoenix Suns, rose on the Western horizon, and there was a rush to embrace them. "The Lakers are still a great team, but Phoenix is the epitome of a team playing on top of its game," said Denver coach Doug Moe the night of the lopsided loss in L.A.
The Lakers, whose antennae are out for that sort of sniping to begin with, no doubt sensed they were not getting the respect due a two-time defending champion. But it was hard to tell. The Lakers tend to keep their strongest opinions to themselves. They operate something like a grand jury, taking care of any controversial team business behind closed doors. "We have standards and procedures on this team," said Riley, "and rarely does anyone violate them."
If the Lakers' timing and tempo were thrown off by the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retirement tour—their record was 13-12 in "ceremony games"—certainly no one said it. Abdul-Jabbar was unfailingly polite and well-spoken, if not always enthusiastic, along the farewell trail. It ended with him in possession of more CDs than Tower Records, a 24-foot sailboat called Cap's Sky Hook (from Golden State), a gold and white Harley-Davidson motorcycle (from Milwaukee) and a white '89 Rolls-Royce (from the Lakers). Certainly the inconsistent play of the 42-year-old pivotman—or, more accurately, the constant questions from the media about his play—was a distraction, too. In January, Abdul-Jabbar was playing so poorly that Riley considered benching him, and even in the last half of the season, after Abdul-Jabbar found a second wind, the Lakers were never sure what he would give them. He averaged 10.1 points and 4.5 rebounds for the season.
Thompson (9.2 points, 5.8 rebounds) was more than equal to the task of spelling Abdul-Jabbar—or, because Thompson played 300 more minutes than the starter, would it be more accurate to say that Abdul-Jabbar held down the fort long enough for Thompson to check into the game?—but the rest of L.A.'s bench was inconsistent, particularly Orlando Woolridge. The Lakers were hoping that their bargain-basement ($500,000) acquisition of the 6'9" free agent forward would make them a little deeper (more like, say, the Pistons) and provide an insurance policy for James Worthy and his aching knees. Fortunately for L.A., Worthy didn't need it. Woolridge has shown flashes of brilliance, but then Flashes could be this guy's middle name. Though he is still not a player with whom Riley feels entirely comfortable in the clutch, the Lakers value his size and quickness in their trapping defense, the most underrated aspect of their game.
The consistency of Worthy (20.5 points), Green (13.3 points, a team-high nine rebounds per game) and, most of all. Magic (22.5 points, 12.8 assists, 7.9 rebounds. 17 triple-doubles) enabled L.A. to stay just ahead of the Western pack. Each year Magic adds something: a back-to-the-basket postup game one year, the "junior, junior skyhook" another, a scorer's mentality yet another. This season Magic decided to be a long-distance marksman, and so he attempted 188 three-pointers, converting 59 for a respectable .319 percentage. Consider where he has come from: In 1982-83, he was 0 for 21 from beyond the three-point line. While he was at it, Magic also won the NBA's free throw shooting title (making 513 of 563 for .911), not bad for a guy who was supposed to lack a shooting touch when he came into the league 10 years ago. Moreover, Magic proved that he could play without the goatee that he has worn ever since, as he says, "there was something to wear." He awoke one morning about six weeks ago, applied the shaving cream for his usual trim around the edges and just decided to "go all the way."