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Once Again, the Challenge of Bird Brings Out Best in Michael Cooper

December 12, 1987|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — About 30 minutes into it, Michael Cooper's postgame shower was interrupted Friday night by Laker publicist Josh Rosenfeld.

"Hey, Coop," Rosenfeld called out. "You know we won the game."

Of course he knew.

Cooper doesn't take lightly these confrontations with Larry Bird.

"Larry's Shadow," as a headline writer for the Boston Globe dubbed Cooper, has a personal library of 50 Larry Bird videotapes, about 150 games that he studies regularly.

Last summer, he even brought them to Italy, where he vacationed for a week with his wife, Wanda.

So, it wasn't all that surprising that after he finally emerged from the shower, Cooper admitted that he had been looking forward to Friday night's game against the Boston Celtics for the past couple of weeks.

It had showed in his play.

In the first four games of a five-game trip, he had made only 9 of 30 shots, including just 2 of 13 from three-point range. In Wednesday night's loss against Washington, he scored only 2 points in 42 minutes, and made three turnovers in overtime.

He spent 45 minutes in the shower that night before reporters gave up waiting on him.

An emotional player, Cooper had become "very discouraged" by recent events, teammate Byron Scott said.

To bring him out of his funk, "it usually takes me or Magic (Johnson) to talk to him and tell him, 'We don't need you to get down on yourself,' " Scott said. "He's the type of person who blames himself a lot. But playing Boston is all he needed."

Apparently so.

In a 115-114 Laker victory at Boston Garden, against the player he uses as a personal measuring stick, Cooper played his usual strong defensive game on Bird, in addition to making 8 of 12 shots and scoring a season-high 21 points.

"He plays you hard, he plays you tough," Bird said of Cooper. "In the last three or four times he's come in here, he's scored some big points for them. I thought he did a good job of keeping them in the game."

Cooper made 3 of 6 three-pointers, including one with 45 seconds left that pulled the Lakers even at 113-113, after they had fallen behind by 13 points early in the third quarter.

"You hate to use it as an excuse for all the other games," Cooper said, "but I think I was leaning toward this game at the start of the trip, and it kind of took me out of the other ones.

"This was the one game I actually felt I was ready for because yesterday I was sweating (while) thinking about it."

Mostly, that was because he'd be up against Bird, who this week told the Boston Globe: "When I'm practicing during the summer by myself, (Cooper's) the guy who's always guarding me."

Imaginary practices against Cooper weren't all that occupied Bird's time last summer. He also lifted weights for the first time, shedding 21 pounds and generally toning his body.

His jersey fairly hangs on him.

"He's a hell of a lot quicker as far as his first step (goes)," Cooper said of Bird, who scored 35 points. "He made a move on me tonight where he spun off me. Usually, in the past, I could have recovered, but he was by me so fast and to the basket that I was left there kind of standing and watching."

Cooper said that Bird also is more aggressive offensively this season.

He noticed that on the bench as Bird scored 11 points in the first quarter before Cooper relieved James Worthy.

"I saw the way he was looking to go every time," Cooper said. "When that happens, there's nothing you can do but put the pressure on him, and that's what we tried. We tried to push him out as far as we could and eventually it worked."

The key to stopping Bird, or at least limiting his effectiveness, Cooper said, is denying him the ball.

"Especially tonight, because he was initiating so much," Cooper said. "He was looking to go every chance he got, so it was my job to be a defensive stopper."

Bird, who scored another seven points before Cooper entered the game in the second half, was limited to four fourth-quarter points, including a driving shot from the lane with 2:35 left that gave the Celtics a 111-105 lead. The Celtics still led, 113-110, before Cooper took a pass from Johnson and made a three-point shot from beyond the top of the key.

"We didn't get out to him on time," Boston's Kevin McHale said. "Chief (Robert Parish) ran at him. I thought he was going to make him miss it. Shooting a three-pointer with a 7-footer on you, if you can make it, it's a hell of a shot."

All part of the game, Cooper said.

"I think whenever you think defense, your offense will come," he said. "I wasn't looking to be an offensive threat, but I was going to take my shots as they came."

So was Bird, but they rarely came when Cooper was guarding him.

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