PROVIDENCE, R. I. — It is not June. It is October. It is not the NBA finals. It is an exhibition game. It is, however, the Lakers and the Celtics and little else matters.
They played each other Sunday night for the first time since June 9 when the Lakers beat Boston in the sixth game of the championship series, exactly 118 days ago.
"It seems like it was just last week," Mitch Kupchak said.
Celtic Coach K. C. Jones disagreed.
"More like a week and a half," Jones said.
Laker Coach Pat Riley said his mind was playing tricks with him before the game.
"I had a flashback" Riley said. "Here we are again, the Lakers and the Celtics."
It is no mental illusion that there is a wide gulf separating the Lakers and Celtics, one which cannot be bridged by something as meaningless as an exhibition game. The division is both symbolic and very real at the same time.
"I don't like them," Michael Cooper said of the Celtics. "But I do respect them. You don't have to like anyone, but you do have to respect a Larry Bird and a Kevin McHale and a Dennis Johnson."
And if you are a Laker, you also feel a deep need to beat them. That is why Riley put Magic Johnson and James Worthy back into the game with three minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The Celtics had moved to within eight points of the Lakers and Riley figured that that was close enough, so on came Johnson and Worthy and out went the Celtics, who lost to the Lakers for the second time in 118 days, 124-111.
"This was not just an exhibition game," Riley said. "It had a little more heat to it."
You expected a normal exhibition game of slop and chop and go-through-the-motions? Then you do not understand the nature of Lakers and Celtics. Not even changing some of last year's cast of characters makes much difference.
We know that Jamaal Wilkes and Bob McAdoo are gone from the Lakers, with A. C. Green and Maurice Lucas in their place. But the Celtics made some changes, too, and not only at the podium, where Cedric Maxwell and M. L. Carr spoke so eloquently.
"Maybe I can hire a Hollywood writer and he can be our spokesman," Jones said.
Until he does, the Celtics are going to try to get along with one more Williams than they had last season (Ron and Sly instead of Ray), as well as Bill Walton as a player, not a talker.
Walton, who has not missed a single practice session so far, worked 18 minutes Sunday night and had seven rebounds.
"Bill will help them a lot," Riley said.
It did not take long for Walton to get into the spirit of the Celtic-Laker tradition. Kupchak decked Bird on a foul in the second quarter, but Walton quickly returned the favor when he leveled Kupchak on a layup. Bird slapped Walton's hand.
There was more a little later. Walton knocked Kupchak to the floor again, then Celtic newcomer Williams (Sly) elbowed Kurt Rambis and was called for a technical foul. In the fourth quarter, Bird decked Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"It's a little too early in the season to be that intense," Kupchak said. "It's only two weeks since summer. And to have to cope with that. I could personally do without it."
But that probably is not what will happen. The Lakers play the Celtics three more times in preseason games, including twice at the Forum, one of which is already sold out, and that has never before happened in Laker history.
The Lakers expect a payoff of about $250,000 for the two Celtic games at the Forum. But money is just one more byproduct of their matchups, which run a lot deeper than that.
"We seem to stir up a high level of intensity in each other, whether it's a preseason game or not," said the Celtics' Dennis Johnson.
"For what they did last year, they are the best," he said. "I wish there was a way to change it, but I can't. They earned it."
Abdul-Jabbar, who played 28 minutes and scored 24 points, said he was not surprised there was so much body-slamming going on, that the game did not degenerate into the usual numbingly dull preseason contest.
"Because of what happened last year," Abdul-Jabbar said.
There may not be bad blood between the Celtics and Lakers, but there certainly is more to their games than just passing the NBA championship banner back and forth. In the November issue of Inside Sports, Abdul-Jabbar said what he thought of the Celtics and their president, Red Auerbach.
"They're arrogant and loud, a lot like the captain of their ship," Abdul-Jabbar said. "All that talk, their whole cocky attitude starts at the top."
The Lakers and Celtics play their games on many levels, only one of which is on the court. Until a new champion is crowned or until the Lakers repeat, they can do the spouting off for once, and no exhibition game can change that.
"We won the championship for only one year, not eternally," Riley said.