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Kupchak’s Elbow Becomes Sore Point for Angry Celtics

But seriously, folks, all kidding aside. The first three games of the Laker-Celtic series have been fun, but now we’re about to get down to some basketball.

No more Baryshnikov and Emily Post.

This was the scene Tuesday at noon, at the Forum, as the teams were warming up for tonight’s Game 4:

Just outside the Celtics’ locker room, in a quiet corner, Sugar Ray Williams, the Boston guard who lost a TKO last Sunday, was shadow-boxing.

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He looked sharp. The footwork was nice and the left jab was popping.

“I ain’t got nothin’ to say,” Williams said to an approaching reporter.

Inside the locker room, Kevin McHale did.

“We’ve just been too nice,” McHale said. “People have been saying we’re the bad boys, and we’ve been saying we’re not. We’ve been trying to be real nice. It’s time to be bad boys.”

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Real nice? Even last Sunday?

“We were way too nice.”

Cedric Maxwell put it another way.

Maxwell said, of his team’s passivity thus far: “We’re trying to eat meat with no choppers.”

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Over in the other locker room sat the real thug of the series, Mr. Goon Cheapshot himself, according to one noted authority. The Lakers’ Mitch Kupchak was quietly filing the points on his elbows.

Mitch Kupchak, who wasn’t much more than the hood ornament on the Lakermobile all season, had suddenly become a star.

Minutes before, Celtic coach K.C. Jones had nominated Kupchak and Larry Spriggs as the two dirty players in this series. The bad guys. The bullies.

The news was relayed to Kupchak.

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“I don’t really care to comment on that,” Kupchak said, politely.

But Kupchak, who has been a significant contributor to the Lakers’ comeback from 0-1 to 2-1 in this series, did comment on other matters.

He commented, for instance, on whether it’s possible for the Celtics to get more aggressive than they have been.

“They can be more aggressive,” Kupchak said. “And if I were in their shoes, I would. No doubt about it. I would come out tougher.”

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Is Kupchak a dirty player?

“A lot of players, a lot of the Celtics, haven’t seen me play the last couple years,” said Kupchak, who has made a remarkable comeback from possibly the worst knee injury in NBA history.

“When I was in Washington (he spent five seasons with the Bullets), I played the game the way I’m playing it now. I was an aggressive rebounder. I’d go after loose balls. I haven’t changed at all.”

He’s right. People have forgotten Mitch Kupchak. He came to the Lakers in 1981, the answer to prayers, the team’s first real power forward since Rudy LaRusso back in the ‘60s.

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Then Kupchak turned his knee into a noodle casserole one night and everyone wrote him off. Everyone but Kupchak.

Through the first three rounds of the playoffs the Lakers didn’t need him. You don’t need muscles if you can outrun the neighborhood bullies.

But after the first game of this series, it was obvious that the Lakers needed muscle. Coach Pat Riley figured it would happen, and for weeks had been warning Kupchak to stay ready.

In Game 2, Riley called on Kupchak early. Kupchak really shook ‘em down. He put his body on some Celtics.

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His series stats aren’t spectacular, but what Kupchak has done is set a tone, a tempo. He has lifted the Lakers to a slightly higher level of intensity.

K.C. Jones obviously wishes Kupchak hadn’t done that, and Jones is fighting back with psychology.

But Kupchak won’t be psyched into niceness. He has his own quiet motto: “There are no layups in the championship series.”

Kupchak said that quietly, matter-of-factly. He said it while defending the aggression of Celtic Greg Kite, who neck-tackled Kupchak late in Game 3 when Mitch drove across the lane.

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“Kite didn’t try to take my head off,” Kupchak said. “He didn’t fall on top of me. I had him beat to the hoop, and he just knocked me down. It was clean. There are no layups in the championship series.”

There were in Game 1. Celtic layups. Which is why Mitch Kupchak was in Game 2. In this series, nice guys will finish last.

The hot topic of debate from here on will be what’s clean and what’s dirty.

“It’s whether or not there is an intent to hurt somebody,” Kupchak said. “If you get knocked to the ground, throw an elbow, it’s very physical, but there’s no intent to hurt.

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“Blind-side elbows to the face, undercutting (low-bridging), punching someone in the stomach--that’s dirty. But I don’t think there’s been any of that in this series. It’s been a physical series, but it hasn’t crossed over the line.”

Kupchak enjoys contact. After sitting for most of the season, he enjoys merely standing up. Had the Lakers breezed through this series, needing only their pretty running game, Kupchak would have been a million-dollar cheerleader.

He hasn’t said much about all the bench-sitting this season, but he hasn’t enjoyed it. For a long time, he has been ready to play hard for 15 to 25 minutes a game.

“A lot of players would accept it and be thankful for being in that position,” Kupchak said. “I didn’t do all this (rehabilitation) to sit on the bench and be a cheerleader. I want to play.

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“I’m not really satisfied being the 11th or 12th man on the Lakers.”

Someone asked Kupchak if now, finally, he feels like an important part of the team.

He thought about it for perhaps 15 seconds.

“I feel that especially the last couple games, I’ve made a contribution,” Kupchak finally said. “The staff and players have confidence in me now, and that’s a satisfying feeling. I do very much feel part of the team right now.”

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If there was any doubt, K.C. Jones made it official.


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