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How improbable and unpredictable has the NBA's Western Conference been this season? How about eight teams finishing with records of .500 or better? Or Denver never scoring fewer than 100 points in a game? Or Houston going 30-14 after an abysmal start and in the process dropping from second place to third in the Midwest Division?
"The East has the name teams but the West has the power and balance," says Kansas City Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "If Boston, Philly or Milwaukee had to play a Los Angeles, a Seattle or a Golden State six times a year, its record wouldn't be nearly as good."
"We could finish first in our division, or second, or out of the playoffs altogether," says Houston Coach Del Harris, whose team was 44-34 at the end of last week and in a six-club battle for the last four postseason spots. "At the start of the year I thought a little under .500 would get you into the playoffs. Then when the Pacific Division teams started so well I changed it to .500. Then a little later I said 43 wins. Now I think it will take at least 45 or 46. I don't want to hear anything about how easy it is to get into the NBA playoffs."
Right you are, Del. The degree of difficulty for just getting into the Western Conference playoffs this season is only slightly greater than that of picking who'll make it to the NBA finals, as the Rockets did last season. In this year's playoffs Kareem Abdul-Jabbar might not be all that much more important to the Lakers than Eddie Jordan or Bob McAdoo; and Paul Griffin could be as big a key to San Antonio's fortunes as George Gervin; and Billy McKinney could very well play a bigger role than David Thompson for Denver.
Yep, the zanies are what's happening in the West. Or not happening, as is the Lakers' hope. The Lakers were the first and most notable victims of Rocket-mania a year ago, losing a mini-series in three games. But the Lakers should win the Pacific title and thereby earn a bye into the conference semifinals, a considerable accomplishment given the variety of crises that befell the team this year.
First there was Magic Johnson versus Coach Paul Westhead, followed by a public-relations blitz that tried to exonerate Magic for Westhead's firing. Then Power Forward Mitch Kupchak had his yearly disabling injury, a broken left leg that should keep him out of the playoffs. Later there was the club's six-game winning streak in December minus Abdul-Jabbar and his subsequent hurt feelings.
Then there was the much-talked-about role change for Kareem. No longer would he worry about scoring; instead he'd concentrate on blocking shots and rebounding. That led to talk about L.A. not being big enough for both Magic and Kareem—with, the theory went. Magic's up-tempo game winning out and Kareem being traded to San Diego, to Cleveland, to Uranus. But Abdul-Jabbar started scoring megapoints late in the season, averaging 25.4 a game in March.
Coach Pat Riley says the only problems the Lakers have now are "the people who keep saying that we have problems." But that wasn't the case earlier in the season. "It's like walking on eggshells in the locker room when things like that are happening," says one Laker player. "We don't have anyone who can walk into a locker room and say, 'Do this,' and 'Do that.' I wish we did, but not many teams do. Maybe it can't be done anymore."
Not on the Lakers, with their galaxy of stars. No one can tell Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon et al. how to play basketball. No one has to. Come playoff time, the only things that should bother the Lakers are what affects even the lowliest team: injuries. Sixth man Michael Cooper, who usually comes in at guard, has a pulled groin that could limit his playoff action, and the next reserve guard on the list, Eddie Jordan, cracked a bone in his leg below the left knee on March 30. L.A. must have one or the other in good form—and soon. But the biggest loss was Kupchak, who says he won't return for the playoffs "if I use my head and play it smart for once."
" L.A. can't win with a Kurt Rambis, a Jim Brewer or a Mark Landsberger at Kupchak's forward spot," Fitzsimmons says. "All you do is leave them alone on defense and cheat over into the middle against Abdul-Jabbar. Then you can beat them in a half-court game, which is what you usually get in the playoffs, where teams really work hard to curtail the fast break."