The Los Angeles Lakers wasted no time going from world champions to Wimps of the West last season. After they lost in the Western Conference finals to Houston, they were branded as a team that couldn't rebound and wouldn't play tough defense, a bunch of showtime specialists who stubbornly stuck to their running game when everyone else in the NBA was turning to power. Has anyone, besides Don Regan, fallen out of favor faster than the Lakers?
"Everyone keeps saying we're fading and fading," said Earvin Johnson Friday night, leaning back against a locker, smiling. "I just hope we keep on fading like that."
The Wimps of the West had just finished pounding Boston 117-110, ending the Celtics' 48-game winning streak in Boston Garden. The Celtics hadn't lost on the parquet since Dec. 6, 1985, and that game was a fluke, a case of a mediocre team ( Portland) blowing out a great team on a bad night. The Lakers' win was no fluke. To achieve it, they did the things that Boston is supposed to do—like outscore the Celtics 20-8 over the final 8:24. The Lakers got more rebounds (38-32), forced more bad shots with a frenetic defense ( Boston was 7 for 19 in the final period) and generally outhustled and outmuscled a Celtic team that suddenly looks old and vulnerable.
And tired. Never mind Magic Johnson's 31-point, eight-assist, seven-rebound line on a night when, because of aching knees, he said he was only "90 percent." Or A.C. Green's 11 rebounds. Or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's six fourth-period skyhooks, which ultimately made the difference. The most telling numbers for Boston were these: 44, 43, 43, 42 and 41. Those were the minutes played by the Celtic starters—Robert Parish, Larry Bird, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson and Kevin McHale—and they are commensurate with their season averages. "No, fatigue was not a factor," said Parish, who forced Abdul-Jabbar to the bench with early foul trouble only to be force-fed Kareem's late skyhooks. "We just went cold at the end. We couldn't write 2 with a pencil."
But why? Fatigue, said both Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper. And they are correct. At this point in the season, no one would notice if the vaunted Celtic bench were trucked to Boston Common and used as a perch for pigeons.
Like a yapping puppy, Fate has been nipping at the heels of the Celtics, who breezed through last season as if in a protective bubble. The reversal of fortunes began in June when a cocaine overdose claimed Boston's first-round draft choice, Len Bias. "He would have been one of the greatest ever," said Bird. "I thought we had won another championship on draft day." So far this season Ainge (bad back), Bird (ailing right Achilles tendon) and first guard off the bench Jerry Sichting (intestinal virus) have missed 14 games among them, while Scott Wedman, the only Celtic who can approximate Bird's outside touch, was placed on the injured list last week because of persistent left heel problems. Even coach K.C. Jones missed four games last month with strep throat. And...well, there is one more injury almost too painful to mention. There's no easy way to say it, but here goes: Bill Walton is having foot problems. "Having Bill here was like a time bomb," said Bird. And now it's gone off.
Perhaps Walton should have read the tea leaves when he broke the little finger of his left hand while playing one-on-one with Parish in the preseason. Instead, to maintain his conditioning, he took to furiously pedaling a stationary bicycle and somehow managed to injure his right ankle. The injury is officially labeled "an inflammation of the outside joint of the right ankle," but given Walton's history of stress fractures, it was bound to be more complicated than that. Walton was to have a bone scan of the ankle on Monday, and there was a strong possibility that arthroscopic surgery would soon follow. "I had to do something," said Walton on Saturday. "It wasn't getting better on its own."
Walton hasn't played a minute this season, and he's frustrated. But he is also optimistic about the possible surgery. "I know everybody's written me off for this season, but I think there's time. Anyway, I've been written off before, right?"
At least the surgery would get him away from his merciless teammates, who spend much of their practice time subjecting him to good-natured abuse. "I keep hearing about Bill getting a CAT scan," says McHale, "but what they should give this guy is a brain scan." Walton takes it all in good spirit, but the grins are freezing fast on his face these days. "It's killing me not to be able to play," he says.
Oh, how swift is that tumble from grace, as the Lakers discovered last year when they lost four in a row to the Rockets in the playoffs. Take that team to the beach, everyone said then, and leave it there. What L.A. needed to do was get bigger and tougher. So Pat Riley, whose genteel GQ wardrobe hides a stubborn man, went out and got a team that is smaller and quicker.