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In Opener, Lakers Pick Up Where They Left Off : L.A. Faces Rockets Today at Houston, Where Last Season Came to Abrupt End

November 01, 1986|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — The idea that the Lakers are no longer the dominant National Basketball Assn. team this side of the Charles River apparently does not compute in the mind of Magic Johnson, who must be forgetting that last spring's seasonal trip back to Boston stalled in Houston.

Not only did the Lakers fail to win consecutive league titles, the club's Western Conference domination also abruptly ended when the Rockets convincingly dismissed them in five games.

But Johnson insists that the Lakers, regardless of their inability to repeat as champions, will not repeat last season's playoff pratfall.

"I don't think we have to redeem ourselves," Johnson said. "We had a super season, won 62 games. We just got caught playing bad and them playing well at a bad time. All we have to do is worry about ourselves."

Some less optimistic people are worrying about the Lakers, who will open the season here today (Channel 2, 12:30 p.m. PST) against Houston seemingly in no better position to handle the young, talented and very tall Rockets than last season.

"All we got to do is play our game and we'll be all right," Johnson said.

The Lakers' game, of course, is to run whenever possible. But the Rockets, with 7-foot Akeem Olajuwon and 7-4 Ralph Sampson, slowed the Lakers in the series and caused all sorts of matchup problems. Since neither Sampson, who will miss today's game because of an ankle injury, nor Olajuwon has shrunk, those problems still exist.

In the aftermath of the playoff loss, Laker Coach Pat Riley and General Manager Jerry West promised to make changes--and they did. But change is not always for the better, and it is questionable whether the deletions from and additions to the roster will make a significant difference.

Height and bulk, not speed and shooting, were what the Lakers really needed in last season's playoff series with the Rockets. The Lakers could only counter the Twin Towers with their lone monument, 7-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and several condominiums.

"We definitely don't deserve to be the front-runner; Houston does," said 39-year-old Abdul-Jabbar, who will soon sign a contract extension for 1987-88. "But with the team we have, we're contenders."

Since the Lakers have yet to find another tall, talented tower to team with Abdul-Jabbar, they have seemingly chosen to go the other way. They want to run even more than in previous seasons, fast-breaking whenever possible and pressuring opponents on defense.

It's what the Lakers do best, and Riley is hoping it causes matchup problems of a different sort. Besides, the Lakers tried playing physically with Houston, and look what happened.

"We've got no choice now," Riley said. "This year, we better run. We thought we could power them, and we did. It was a close (series). But we didn't make them play us, and that's uncharacteristic of us. . . . We have to stop worrying about what we don't have."

Conversely, the Lakers didn't keep some of what they had last season.

The core of the team--Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Kurt Rambis, A.C. Green and Michael Cooper--has not changed.

Otherwise . . .

The Lakers waved goodby to their leading rebounder last season, 6-9 muscle man Maurice Lucas. The 34-year-old Lucas wasn't exactly considered Mr. Congeniality by Riley or teammates, and he was too slow to join in the fast breaks. But Lucas served a purpose--rebounding and enforcing--that the Lakers now lack.

They welcomed veteran center Mitch Kupchak, who was well liked and a hard worker, into the front office. Kupchak, 32, retired in September after 10 NBA seasons and is now assistant general manager.

One of the vacated forward positions has been filled by Frank Brickowski, a reserve power forward who played for Seattle the last two seasons. Brickowski, 6-10, is physical underneath but has limited ability.

The Lakers don't have the NBA's smallest group of big men, as West points out. Abdul-Jabbar's backups at center are 7-2 Petur Gudmundsson and Brickowski; Kurt Rambis, 6-8, and A.C. Green, 6-9, are capable rebounders and adequate defenders at power forward.

"I don't know how everyone keeps saying we're a small team because we're not," said West, who says he is still looking for another big player. "Only about four teams are taller than we are."

The problem is that Boston and Houston are two of those teams.

"We've got good athletes who can keep up with anybody," Abdul-Jabbar said. "That's important. Any plan is limited by the guys you've got doing it."

The Lakers will likely take advantage of Johnson's impressive versatility more than in previous seasons. At 6-9, Johnson is capable of playing every position except center. In an emergency, you may recall, he can even play there.

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