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NBA Helps Make It a Game, Not a Gang Fight : Riley Tells Lakers to Expect the Quick Whistle; Jones Tells Celtics Nothing

Times Sports Editor

Rodney Dangerfield probably hated it. So did a lot of the fans who showed up with blood in their eyes. But the truth is, they held a basketball game at the Forum Wednesday night, and the only thing that broke out was a basketball game.

This was Game 4 of the NBA championship series, the Lakers vs. the Celtics. But if you read a lot and listened a lot to what was being written and broadcast going in, this was also to be World War III, more boxing than basketball, a gang fight where they charged admission.

The buildup was probably unavoidable. Last year, the Celtics had taken great pride in both beating and beating up the Lakers en route to a victory in the final series. And this year, when the Lakers took a 2-1 lead, they pointed with some pride of their own to their aggressive play, some of it triggering some modified sumo wrestling near the end of Game 3 Sunday. To which the Celtics had responded that, well, they would respond properly Wednesday night.

So, the battle lines were drawn, the guns were loaded on both sides and the heavy artillery was in place. Fill in your own war cliche. They all work.

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Fans showed up in army fatigues. Sports Illustrated hit the streets with a caption that quoted one player as saying: “This is War.” And the pregame music even included (what else?) the theme from “Rocky.”

Nobody even seemed interested in basketball. It was seldom mentioned and little discussed. What’s a skyhook? Who cares about picks and rolls? Give us counterpunches and headlocks. Maybe even some fan violence. With a little luck, this could have been the night that U.S. sports fans made those European soccer fans stand up and take notice.

Well, it didn’t happen. Not even close. And a number of people deserve credit, starting with Scotty Stirling, vice president of operations in the NBA.

Stirling, correctly concerned over the Lions and Christians atmosphere surrounding Game 4, had a pregame meeting with the coaches, Pat Riley of the Lakers and K.C. Jones of the Celtics, and told them that the game officials would establish early that rough play was out. Stirling said that he was concerned with what he was reading in the papers, and he was talking to at least two of the right people along those lines, since Riley and Jones had passed the “dirty play” charge back and forth like a hot potato.

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What happened after that meeting, however, is at least interesting, maybe even intriguing.

Riley took the message back to his team: Expect the quick whistle. Expect to get called immediately for any rough stuff. And at least one Laker, Bob McAdoo, said, certainly without blaming Riley for his communique, that the edict affected his play.

“I thought we did play a little cautious,” McAdoo said. “When I heard that warning from the NBA, heard about the quick whistle, it made a difference. You kind of play more timidly. I saw it with a couple of our guys, right from the beginning.”

Riley, when told of McAdoo’s reaction, said he wished his star reserve hadn’t taken the pregame statement quite so literally.

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“I just wanted them to be prepared for the quick whistle, that’s all,” Riley said.

In the other locker room, Jones took the information from the meeting with Riley and Stirling and went nowhere with it. His lips were sealed.

“No, I didn’t tell my players about it,” Jones said. “I thought it was a very good thing, the meeting. Stirling talked about all the stuff that has been in the papers and about some of the stuff Pat and I have said. Pat and I are friends now, I hope.

“I think the meeting helped, and it was a fantastic game tonight, just fantastic.”

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But if he didn’t pass along word of the meeting to his team, what did he say to them before the game?

“I just told them that if there was a loose ball, go get it and play aggressive all the way,” the Celtic coach said.

Other Laker players, while not directly pointing to any influence from any pregame messages via Riley, did talk about being somewhat passive soldiers in Game 4.

“We just didn’t come out and play,” Kurt Rambis said. “We didn’t put out the effort. You can’t stand around and let all those people shoot that well.”

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Added James Worthy: “I don’t know. We just didn’t seem to get things rolling.”

And from Michael Cooper: “Hopefully, this will wake us up from whatever stupor we were in.”

The most tangible evidence of Laker stupor was in the area of rebounding, where they had outdone the Celtics by identical 49-37 margins while winning Games 2 and 3. On Wednesday night, the Celtics won the battle of the boards, 44-40, and had a 20-6 edge over the Laker front line in the first half.

Also, in two other hustle/aggressive statistical areas, the Celtics showed up best: 8-0 in blocked shots and 10-7 in steals.

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The game officials were John Vanak and Ed Rush. They handed out 24 fouls to the Lakers and 22 to the Celtics. And the powder keg they sat on never exploded, never even came close.


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