Do not doubt that the Lakers were watching the Celtics win Game 7 yesterday in Boston, just as the Celtics watched the Lakers win their seventh game here Saturday, just as the Lakers watched the Celtics win Game 6 in Atlanta Friday . . .
The Hawks and the Jazz and the Pistons and the Mavericks keep banging away at the championship, and the Lakers and Celtics react indignantly, as if the trophy is only for them to share.
It's as if LA and Boston began the playoffs as a tag team, reaching across the continent, maintaining their partnership.
"Deep down, I'm pulling for the Celtics," Michael Cooper said after the Lakers won Game 7 of their Western Conference semifinal Saturday against Utah, 109-98.
The two powers are feeding off each other through these difficult playoff times. The Lakers were still swooning after their 28-point Game 6 loss at Utah -- their sixth-worst ever in postseason -- when they settled down to watch the troubled Celtics win the game they needed in Atlanta.
"Yeah, I was watching that," Magic Johnson said. "That got me ready. I was already ready, but that just got me really ready.
"Boston is still Boston. They might have had trouble, but this time it was all on the line, and when it's a big game, they've been there so much. They know what they have to do."
The Celtics aren't going to be credited for LA's victory here, but moral support doesn't hurt. "It was inspiring, seeing they were still in it," Byron Scott said. "They accepted the challenge. They went into Atlanta, down, 3-2, and they went home in the same situation we were coming to in here. We had to do the same thing they did."
LA coach Pat Riley worked the Celtics into his Game 7 pep talk. "The fact that we could dig down like they had to -- I talked a little bit about it," Riley said. "They showed their experience and maturity in the big game. Looking at the Hawks, inexperience cost 'em."
"They kept our hopes alive," said Cooper, whose personal rivalry with Larry Bird might be the best in the league. "The Celtics are almost a mirror image of us."
Riley swears he has never doubted his decision to guarantee back-to-back championships last June. He even approved a line of T-shirts that read, Championship: Guaranteed. "I made that guarantee because I had tremendous confidence in my team, and I still have that confidence," Riley said. "I still think we're going to win the world championship."
If so, they'll be forced to win it with a different style. Last year, they were the arrow piercing air. This year they're more of an '85 300-ZX in need of an oil change. In fact, it's amazing how much they've come to look like the Celtics.
"Definitely," Cooper said. "Who knows? It might be old age."
"We play the whole game now," Riley said. "We can win at half-court, we can win at the running game. That's what happens with experience."
They'd still rather run always, but they simply cannot. Too often Kareem Abdul-Jabbar looks as if he's fading into another dimension. Magic's groin injury is two months old, and James Worthy averaged 10 points, shooting 41 percent in LA's three playoff losses. No one has diagnosed the fundamental problem, but Worthy fixed everything Saturday with two first-quarter steals that set off the fast break.
"It takes intensity to play defense," Worthy said. "It doesn't take that much to play offense. When you play defense with intensity, build up a good sweat, it carries over to the offense."
Magic also responded to the threat handled by Utah guard John Stockton, who outplayed Johnson while breaking Magic's playoff record for assists in a series (now 115).
"I think he sort of felt that, listened to that," Riley said of Magic, who accumulated 23 points, 16 assists and 9 rebounds in Game 7. "While John Stockton is a great little guard and developing, wait 'til he gets to the point where Earvin Johnson is, when he has to worry about John Doe and Joe Blow 10 years from now. That's a different kind of pressure, always being measured against someone else trying to knock him off.
"But isn't it ironic that Earvin's team always wins? That's his greatness, that's what it is."
Though the Lakers improved their running game Saturday, they were not the wind. They have to work out of the half-court more, as opposed to the Celtics, who are running a little more. The Lakers are depending on three-pointers, in the Celtics' image, and Scott is the perimeter threat for LA that Danny Ainge is for Boston. Both point guards named Johnson have fended off talk that their play has hurt their teams.
And both teams know that they aren't in each other's homes yet.
"I think this is the way it's going to be," said Riley, who begins the third round tonight against Dallas at the Forum. "I wouldn't be surprised if the Dallas Mavericks take us seven games. Greatness is not measured only in talent, but in durability. If we win it, we'll show more durability than we've ever had before."
If? What happened to the guarantee?