NEW YORK — What do you say after you've won 400 games faster than any other coach in National Basketball Assn. history?
"If I had some talent," Pat Riley said after the Lakers had slogged their way to the 400th victory of his coaching term, a bruising 104-99 decision over the New York Knicks Wednesday night, "I would have won 500 by now."
The wise guys, of course, have always maintained that only the Rockefellers inherited more riches than Riley when he took over the Lakers from Paul Westhead on Nov. 19, 1981. To say Riley was responsible for the Lakers winning, they said, would be like crediting the weatherman for a sunny day.
And Riley, who has never been voted coach of the year even though his teams have won three NBA titles, is hardly in a position to dispute that premise, however shaky. How could he, as long as he had the luxury of sending Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper onto the court?
So publicly, anyway, Riley deflects whatever frustration he must feel with humor.
"Even you writers," he said Wednesday night to the crowd of reporters that had him pinned to a corridor wall, "could win 400 games with this team, I think."
Riley undoubtedly would agree that it is better to be unappreciated and win than to be called a genius like baseball's Gene Mauch and have nothing to show for it. But there remains a hunger for recognition that compels Riley as surely as the chance to repeat as champions drives the Lakers to play the way they did against the Knicks, when circumstances might have suggested a letdown was in order.
The Lakers were playing for the fourth time in six nights, with Michael Jordan still awaiting them in Chicago tonight. Michael Cooper was back in Los Angeles; Magic Johnson was slowed by a groin pull, and the Knicks--with their kamikaze defense and exciting rookie guard, Mark Jackson--had become unbeatable in Madison Square Garden, where they had won 13 straight and had a sellout crowd of 19,591 primed for one more.
And it appeared New York might get its way, when the Lakers staggered through a 44-point first half, shooting 39.5% and turning the ball over 11 times, leaving them 7 points in arrears.
"One thing we talked about at halftime," Riley said. "was that we wanted to earn our turnovers.
"We had at least 6 or 7 turnovers that were academic, that came from a lack of poise. The Knicks make you look that way. They're relentless.
"We had to be more definitive. The key to the game was to attack their pressure, not to succumb to it."
Byron Scott fired the first salvo in the Laker counterattack, scoring 13 points in the third quarter, which ended with the Lakers still down 2, 80-78, due mainly to 3 three-pointers by Knick guard Trent Tucker. Then Mychal Thompson--breaking free in the lane for two jams, a layup and a little running hook--scored 8 of the Lakers' first 12 points in the quarter and the Knicks succumbed to some intense defense thrown back at them by the Lakers, who held New York scoreless for more than four minutes.
The Knicks turned the ball over on four straight possessions and Tucker missed a driving shot before Jackson finally drove for a basket with 3:55 to go. That cut the Laker lead to 6, 95-89, and despite some anxious moments caused by the Knicks' full-court press, the Lakers didn't let New York get closer than four the rest of the way. This was one Garden party that had run its course.
"I was shopping today in Bloomingdale's," said Magic Johnson, who once again was top shelf with 26 points (14 of 14 from the line), a game-high 14 rebounds and 9 assists, missing his third straight triple-double by a single assist. "And people kept coming up to me and saying, '13 in a row--you better watch out.' "
Sooner or later, people will learn to duck when the Lakers are passing through. The ticker keeps running: 49-10 overall, 14 out of the last 15, 38 of 42, 22-7 on the road, including three straight on this trip.
"This team has tremendous resolve and resiliency," Riley said. "We missed something like five layups at the end of the third period and they buried three-pointers. But we came back. That comes from their maturity and experience."
And maybe it comes from having a half-decent coach, one who got win No. 400 in his 540th game, 32 fewer than it took ex-76er coach Billy Cunningham to reach that level. Even if Riley's wife, Chris, and his players are the only ones who know it.
"He's worked hard," Magic Johnson said, "and he hasn't gotten the respect he should get. That's what I think he's looking for.
"They always say anybody can coach this team. Well, anybody can't."
Kurt Rambis, who did not play Wednesday, was a rookie when Westhead was toppled 11 games into the '81-82 season and Riley, the assistant, was named coach.
"I had no idea what was going on," Rambis said. "I didn't know where he was from or anything about him.