Three days before the Lakers and Boston Celtics play their first game, the battle lines are already drawn, at least mentally.
How will the National Basketball Assn. championship series, starting Monday, be fought? It could be that in the early stages, the Lakers are going to be on the defensive.
They're walking carefully through a minefield.
Laker Coach Pat Riley isn't sure which step will be the one that triggers an unwelcome flashback, which move will bring a sign popping up out of the ground in front of him, bearing the question:
So What Happened Last Year? The past is still present for the Lakers, who lost a seven-game series to Boston and have to be constantly reminded of it because no one, least of all the Celtic team, seems to be willing to let them forget.
"I'm sure they feel they have something to prove," Boston Coach K.C. Jones said. "They were hoping we would be there so they could make up for last year."
Jones is not alone in his assessment of the Laker psyche. Celtic forward Cedric Maxwell believes that the Lakers will bring a great deal of incentive with them to the final series.
"They'll be thinking of revenge," he said.
Riley, however, maintains that he is not thinking anything of the sort, and he has counseled his players to follow his lead. There is nothing positive to gain by reliving the past, Riley said, and so he doesn't like to think much about last season's championship series.
In fact, he won't even talk about it.
"I understand that history has to be chronicled again, but I don't want to dwell on anything but the positive," he said. "Opening up any kind of lock-box about what happened or why would be counter-productive.
"I've cautioned the team about that," he said. "It was an experience lived. It was a good one and it was a bad one. This is a very simple process--either winning or being in a miserable state of mind. Why go back and open up a can of worms? Let's just get on with it."
Unfortunately for the Lakers, reminders about last season's championship series won't go away just because they wish them to.
Riley was back at work Thursday morning in his office at the Forum, only a few hours after the Lakers defeated Denver for the Western Conference title. The celebration hadn't lasted very long.
He sat at his desk, a stack of cassettes piled in front of him. They were video reminders of the Celtics, but it's the other kind of reminders, old ones left over from last season, that really bother him.
"You don't forget those things, but it's history," he said. "That wound has healed over. I'm not so sensitive as to say, 'We have to redeem ourselves,' because we don't have to. The precious present, that's what it is now."
Riley absorbed the seventh-game loss as hard as any Laker. When it was over, he said he felt as though a light switch had been turned off. A month after the final game, Riley said he had learned to "live, breathe and survive."
And now, Riley said, the Lakers must learn to handle talking about last season when the media asks about it.
"It's up to the players and how they respond to the queries," Riley said. "We know they're going to get (questions), it's how they answer them. From the media standpoint and how they approach this series today instead of last year, well, it will be very important on our players' part to be able to deal with that."
The Lakers don't seem to be together yet on how to treat last season's loss to Boston. Of course, it's still early.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called the past a dead issue, but Magic Johnson had a different opinion.
"Since it is the Celtics, there's going to be a little extra incentive because of what happened last year," Johnson said.
Riley is fairly certain that the Lakers can shake off all those references to last season. There is one way to let them remember it more positively. Winning this time will probably improve their memories.
Losing in a seventh game last season was no disgrace, Riley said, but it's nothing they want to do again.
So as the Lakers enter this championship series, still mindful of what happened last season, one thing seems quite clear. It's the thought that counts.