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Joe Jares
April 12, 1976
Three teams, two playoff spots—and the Suns, SuperSonics and Lakers had to spend the last days of the season battling to see who got left out
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April 12, 1976

War In The Pacific

Three teams, two playoff spots—and the Suns, SuperSonics and Lakers had to spend the last days of the season battling to see who got left out

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Shortly after Heard arrived, Guard Dick Van Arsdale broke his left arm and was replaced by Sobers, who had starred at Nevada, Las Vegas. Sobers has turned out to be much steadier as a starter than coming off the bench, and Van Arsdale, 33, will have a difficult time getting his job back.

Sobers brings the ball up most of the time, and defends against the smaller, quicker guards like Nate Archibald and Calvin Murphy, freeing Westphal to do what he does best—steal passes, move without the ball, shoot and entertain the fans with some of the most acrobatic moves in the NBA. Since the All-Star break Westphal has averaged better than 23 points a game and shot comfortably over .500. In the win over L.A., the game that may have killed the Lakers' playoff chances, he scored 27.

Last Friday night, at home against Portland and its now-healthy-again center, Bill Walton, Phoenix ran up a robust 19-point lead before almost blowing the game. As usual, it was Westphal who made the clutch play. The winning basket came when he blocked Barry Clemens' shot, recovered the ball and passed to Adams, who hit Perry for a lay-up with 14 seconds left.

Westphal gives the credit to Adams, the 6'9" would-be doctor who would be finishing his senior year at Oklahoma if he hadn't decided to turn pro.

"Before, he'd explode for big scoring games more often," says Westphal. "But now he's more consistent. He's the backbone of the team. We wouldn't be anywhere near the playoffs without him."

By a quirk of scheduling, the NBA Pacific teams were playing each other last week in a cutthroat game of musical chairs. Phoenix, which is battling Seattle for the home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, was in second place Monday morning, in third on Thursday, back to second Saturday and in third again after losing Sunday night. Meanwhile, L.A. stewed in fourth place, hoping for a miracle.

The sad truth in L.A. is that Coach Bill Sharman's days seem to be numbered. The Lakers have not sold out a regular-season home game in two years and their road record for the same period is a dismal 18-62. When Laker Owner Jack Kent Cooke traded half the team for Abdul-Jabbar last summer, it was believed that he had acquired for himself the NBA title, or at least a contending team.

Nobody thought that L.A. might fail to make the playoffs for a second straight year, but the Lakers were on the brink of that calamity last week.

Speculation on who might succeed Sharman, who has coached championship teams in three different pro leagues, involved Indiana Coach Bobby Knight, ex-Laker Jerry West and Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch. The gossip intensified Wednesday night when L.A. turned in a weak performance in losing at Seattle 120-109. The defeat was the Lakers' ninth in their last 10 televised-back-to-L.A. games, in which the average margin of defeat has been almost 10 points. Not a great stimulus for the box office.

Whether any of this was Sharman's fault, or the players' or the ballboys', it was the Lakers' lack of fire that drew the greater criticism. Faced with imminent disaster, the Lakers should have been diving after loose balls and leaping like demons for rebounds. Against Seattle most of them appeared to be drained of emotion.

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