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Having played desultorily for most of the year, the Los Angeles Lakers last week appeared to have suddenly found themselves a backcourt that was unstoppable, found themselves a small forward who could be for the ages, and found themselves with the second-best record in the NBA. On Friday night the Lakers beat the Boston Celtics, who have the league's best record, 116-108, and on Sunday they beat the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers, 101-99, to raise their record to 37-19, 3� games ahead of the second-place Portland Trail Blazers in the Pacific Division. More impressive, however, was the fact that they beat Boston and Philly without starting forward Jamaal Wilkes and Bob McAdoo, their high-scoring substitute. The suspicion is growing that the Lakers might be the best team in the NBA.
Despite their formidable record, this hasn't been a smooth season for Los Angeles. Before they had even played a game, the Lakers had to adjust to the trade of one of their best players. Then, for about a month, their aging center looked as if his game needed a jump start. The fast break was a slow break. And nobody was playing any defense to speak of. Fortunately, nobody spoke of it. The best player on the team was momentarily distracted when a close personal friend's hair caught on fire, which in turn made the whole team nervous because the coach's gelled lid is always a threat to go up in flames. The coach, ordinarily as laid back as his hair, started yelling at the players in practice, which messed up his karma or something and caused him to lose 10 pounds—none of it from the top of his head—in about a week. The low point of this dolorous period occurred after a dispiriting loss in Phoenix, when the entire Laker coaching staff was forced to order from a hamburger stand's drive-thru window while on foot because the counterman didn't like their looks and wouldn't let them in the door.
Though last week was a successful one for the team—three victories, including a 128-112 defeat of the Seattle SuperSonics, against one loss, to the same Sonics—it was a typically stressful period for coach Pat Riley. "When I get to the arena for the Boston game I've got McAdoo in the hospital [with an upper-respiratory infection] and Wilkes at home with the flu," Riley said. "Both my assistant coaches want me to start Calvin Garrett, who's sitting over in the corner of the locker room shaking with the flu and because he thinks he might have to guard Larry Bird. Then I go out on the floor and look up in the stands, and there's my wife dressed all in black. I figured it was an omen."
Oh, man. Without Wilkes and McAdoo, L.A.'s running game figured to suffer. But the fast break produced the first 12 Laker points, and 48 in all. Michael Cooper, who started instead of Garrett, responded with 20 points and three blocked shots, and stuck so doggedly to Bird on defense that the Boston forward got only 12 shots and scored just 14 points. "Over the last five games our defense has been superb," Cooper said later, "and when we're playing defense our running game is awesome. It's like a snowball rolling along, getting bigger and bigger as it goes."
When the Lakers don't run, they get the ball in to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the peerless 36-year-old pivotman who's hot on the trail of Wilt Chamberlain's record of 31,419 career points. He eclipsed Chamberlain's record for most field goals on Feb. 8 when the Lakers beat the Celtics in Boston, 111-109. After his 12 points Sunday against the 76ers, the Lakers' first regular-season victory in Philadelphia since 1975, Abdul-Jabbar had 30,925 points. At his current scoring pace, Abdul-Jabbar will break Chamberlain's record on April 8 at Portland. On the same day last week that Abdul-Jabbar accumulated 31 points, seven rebounds and five assists against the Celtics, someone in New York stole his jersey from the Power Memorial Academy trophy case. The thing was so old that instead of notifying the police, they called the Historic Preservation Society. "I haven't seen any deterioration of his skills yet," says Riley of Abdul-Jabbar, "but you've got to rest him more. What he does, he does by rote, so practice doesn't help him, it just breaks down his fibers. I think Kareem gives the best he has every game. Some nights he has it all together; on others he's not there."
Lately he's been there most of the time, averaging 22.9 points since the Jan. 29 All-Star Game while the Lakers have put together an 11-3 record, the best in the NBA in that period. In all, February was the best of times for the Lakers, who couldn't possibly have gotten off to a rockier start psychologically than they did this season. After being swept by the 76ers in last season's championship series, L.A. was desperate to find a backup center who could spell Abdul-Jabbar occasionally. Of the team's nucleus of regulars—once known as The Great Eight—guard Norm Nixon was deemed the most expendable, and when the San Diego Clippers offered 6'11" Swen Nater and guard Byron Scott, the fourth pick in the '83 draft, Nixon was sent packing.
Trouble was, Nixon was one of the Lakers' precious few jump shooters who could take pressure off the big men defensively and allow All-NBA guard Magic Johnson to roam the entire floor. Nixon was also one of the players best liked by his teammates. When the deal was made on Oct. 10, 17 days before the start of the regular season, Nixon's former teammates were stunned. "It was a touchy situation," Magic says. "It was a sad thing for both of us. We played together, ate together and discoed together. When it finally happened, it was like a party you had left."
By trading Nixon, the Laker management not only surrendered a valuable player, but it also upset the team's chemistry. Cooper—who for five Laker seasons has been one of the NBA's best sixth men—suddenly wanted to start. Most distressing to Riley was the fact that Johnson had to fill so many gaps, it began to hurt his game. After Nixon saw Johnson play in San Diego's first game against the Lakers this season, which San Diego won 110-106, he said that if his old running mate had to shoulder the same work load all season, "he's going to be an old man by next year."
Johnson, who's only 24 yet in his fifth NBA season, believes Nixon may have known what he was talking about. "I had to take up his slack and do all my things, too," he says. "It was tough at first, and it took us a lot of time to get it together."
Scott, who didn't help his own cause with the Lakers by saying he was comparable to Johnson, "except I'm quicker and can shoot better," started slowly. "The players didn't talk to me much the first couple of weeks," Scott says. "It was a natural reaction. They had just lost somebody they'd been with for six years. I still don't know what they think of me, but I guess they've accepted me."