Celtics v. Lakers? Yes. Bird v. Magic? No.
January 18, 1981
IT'S NOT MAGIC, BUT CELTICS VS. LAKERS STILL SPECIAL
We know this much: it sure isn't going to be "Bird vs. Magic."
That was always going to be the grand design when the Celtics played the Lakers, wasn't it? But when Los Angeles takes the floor this afternoon at the Garden to play the Celtics (1 p.m., Chs. 6 and 38, WBZ) the Lakers will be playing their 29th consecutive game without their precocious floor leader, power rebounder, clutch scorer, master improvisor and all-around Mr. Fixit, Earvin (Magic) Johnson.
Magic is still recuperating from his knee operation, and in his absence the Lakers have struggled. The team stands at 16-12, post-Magic (as opposed to 15-5 with Magic), after Friday night's 113-111 triumph over New Jersey, and during the past few months there have been some rocky times for the defending NBA champions.
Coach Paul Westhead, so heavily praised last season for his professorial touch, has been criticized this year for mishandling some of the team's personalities. His most controversial move was to remove forward Jim Chones and guard Michael Cooper from the starting lineup, replacing them with Jim Brewer and rookie Butch Carter, respectively. He coined a catchy phrase, "Balance of Energy," to explain his thinking. The idea was that he needed more bench production, and that Chones and Cooper would provide some.
Cooper was shooting 41 percent as a starter at the time, but Chones was playing very well, scoring his 11 or 12 points a game and rebounding in the same neighborhood. Mr. C did not appreciate what he felt was a demotion, and the situation was fired up when one of the Lakers was blindly quoted as saying something to the effect that "Westhead has benched our best big man." Though the club's immediate response was to win four straight, the experiment began to fizzle. Reportedly, Chones is still miffed (Westhead didn't explain things to him). He is also back in the starting lineup, as is Cooper.
Even without Magic, the Lakers would appear to have enough firepower in the persons of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Chones and Cooper to remain one of the league's premier teams. But the Lakers have been inconsistent in every department since losing the marvelous John Westhead has found himself confronted with a variety of new problems.
At its best, this Laker team is still very tough. Witness a 122-116 victory over Philadelphia on Dec. 28, a game in which Wilkes, a silent assassin, knifed the Sixers for 32 points, Cooper played with his 1979-80 zest, Mark (Mr. Rebounder) Landsberger assaulted the boards and, most importantly, Kareem utilized his full talents.
Should that particular LA team show up today, the Celtics will be in trouble.
And what should the Lakers expect to find? LA knows Boston's numbers, the seven straight, the 19 of 20 and the 34-6 record since Oct. 23. LA has heard that Robert Parish has been a monster in the middle, that Tiny Archibald has been playing inspired basketball, that Chris Ford is quietly doing his particular thing in great style, that Cedric Maxwell has added defense to his list of skills, that Kevin McHale is a new, wondrous X-factor and that Larry Bird is, well, Larry Bird. But the Lakers also know that they twice defeated the Celtics last year, and that with the exception of the first half of the second game, when he went 5 for 5, Bird has not done anything special against them.
There has been a Celtic-Laker mystique for two decades, and though Magic will not be there, this game will qualify as an Event.
And, anyway, it's Opening Day. Winter becomes official on the Boston sports calendar only when the Celtics start playing on Sunday afternoons, and all those people in Ashtabula, Alameda and Andalusia get a look at the famed parquet floor on national TV.
So hang in there, Magic. We miss ya', kid, but we'll still have some fun.
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