The Lakers sat in front of a chalkboard Tuesday morning at Loyola Marymount and, like serious students, watched intently as Coach Pat Riley wrote out the phrase playoff mentality and then underlined it.
Experienced as they are, Laker players needed to be reminded only once about what it takes, attitude-wise, to be successful in the NBA playoffs. So, Riley's lecture going into Friday night's first-round game against the Houston Rockets concerned the need to increase intensity and commitment.
"That's what it's all about," Riley said after Tuesday's practice. "Nothing else can matter now. You've got to focus on one thing, the task at hand. Our team will be ready to play. We're just as commited as anybody in this league. We know what we have to do."
It is not as if the Lakers have been out of focus--another favorite Riley term--in the regular season. At 63-19, they finished with the league's best record and did not lose three consecutive games at any point.
But the Lakers have donned their psychological playoff armor, which has always deflected negativity and shielded them from even the slightest hint of vulnerability.
They say they welcome the challenge that Akeem Olajuwon and the Rockets pose, although the Seattle SuperSonics would have been their preferred opponent.
"You never heard us say we didn't want to play Houston," Laker forward James Worthy said after Houston secured the eighth playoff spot Sunday.
Not in so many words, but the Lakers have had more problems--both this season and in past seasons--with the Rockets.
The Lakers split the season series with the Rockets, losing twice in Houston by a combined 23 points and winning twice at the Forum by a combined 20 points. The Rockets were the only Western Conference team to eliminate the Lakers in the 1980s. They ousted the Lakers in the 1980-81 miniseries and the 1985-86 Western Conference finals.
Conversely, Seattle has lost 10 consecutive games to the Lakers. The SuperSonics also have lost 12 consecutive playoff games to the Lakers, including last season's 29-point collapse in Game 4 of the semifinals.
And, perhaps the biggest factor: The Rockets have Olajuwon; the SuperSonics do not.
But Houston (41-41) earned the final playoff berth by beating Utah on Sunday, and Seattle (41-41) lost to Golden State. The Rockets qualified because they had won the season series against the SuperSonics.
"I don't fear the Rockets," Magic Johnson said. "I fear no team in basketball. Nobody."
Not even Olajuwon?
"They are big and strong and they have Akeem," Johnson said. "That presents a problem for us. But we've beaten them before."
Laker center Mychal Thompson, who limited Olajuwon to 12 points with the help of double- and, occasionally, triple-teaming in a game April 15, did not seem concerned with having to face Olajuwon in a best-of-five series.
"Akeem is the ultimate center--despite what they say about Patrick Ewing--and he has to be neutralized," Thompson said. "But this will probably be our toughest trip to get there ever, because almost every team in the West is capable of winning it all.
"You win championships with your front lines. The West has better front lines now. Akeem and Otis (Thorpe, at Houston). David Robinson and (Terry) Cummings (at San Antonio). Tom Chambers, Mark West and Kurt Rambis (at Phoenix). Portland with Buck (Williams), Duck (Kevin Duckworth) and (Jerome) Kersey. The East used to have the bulkier players. Now, the best big guys are in the Western Conference. That's what makes the West so much tougher than the East. And that's why it's going to be our toughest ever."
At one time the Lakers enjoyed a relatively unobstructed path through the West en route the NBA Finals, but today they find that road fraught with hazards.
They could be sideswiped in Salt Lake City or Phoenix or Portland, all proven contenders. Or San Antonio, where Robinson stands tall. And the eighth-seeded Rockets could surprise the Lakers.
Then again, the Lakers could once again either maneuver past or plow through all challengers and advance to the finals as they have done in eight of the past 10 seasons. This much seems certain, though: The Lakers will not have an easy time of it. Few are predicting a repeat of last season's playoff drive, when they breezed through the Western Conference with an 11-0 record.
Of the league's top seven teams, five came from the West. The Lakers finished as the NBA's only 60-victory team, but four other West teams registered at least 50 victories. Portland tied Detroit for the league's second-best record, at 59-23, while San Antonio improved by an NBA-record 35 victories over last season. Utah's 55 victories was the most in the franchise's history and Phoenix (54-28) had one of the league's best records since the All-Star break.
Of course, the Lakers pick themselves as the favorite.
"We've been there," Riley said. "There isn't any situation or any team or any experience that we haven't been up against."
Guard Byron Scott, who sprained his left ankle Thursday, practiced Tuesday for the first time since the injury. Scott said he ran without pain. "It responded well at the beginning of practice," he said. "But when I put a lot of pressure on it, it hurt a little. I have no doubts that in a couple of days, I'll be ready to play.". . . . Michael Cooper sat out most of practice with what a team spokesman termed a "sore" right knee, but is expected to play.