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Lakers Finally Find a Way to Stop McHale : Abdul-Jabbar Successful On Defense, Keeping Celtic Forward in Check

Times Staff Writer

By the end of the first quarter Friday night, it was clear that something had to be done to stop Kevin McHale. If the Lakers had continued their standard defense of the Boston Celtics’ forward, which actually wasn’t much defense at all, Game 5 of the NBA championship series surely would have been lost.

Sinking shots from every conceivable angle and length, including an incredibly ugly left-handed hook off the wrong leg, McHale had 13 points in the first 12 minutes and was on the verge of another dominant offensive game.

Just when it appeared that Laker Coach Pat Riley had run out of players to defend against McHale, seemingly using everyone except Chuck Nevitt, he turned to a player who normally isn’t easily overlooked--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. After experimenting with Abdul-Jabbar on McHale in the second quarter, Riley decided to make it a full-time assignment in the second half. Abdul-Jabbar carried it out quite well, limiting McHale to one basket on a jump shot in the third quarter, and a dunk and two free throws in the fourth quarter.

McHale finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds--a good night but not dominating.

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The reason McHale had so easily handled all the Lakers’ big forwards in the series--he was coming off 28- and 31-point scoring performances--was that he simply used his 6-10 frame and extremely long arms.

It has been said that McHale’s wing-span is so wide that he plays like someone 7-4 instead of 6-10. Since Abdul-Jabbar is 7-2, McHale was going eye-to-eye with a Laker defender for the first time in the series.

“We talked about doing it today (before the game),” Riley said. “We wanted to start with Kurt (Rambis) on him and see how it went. McHale is just such an incredible scorer. Everything he threw up went in--those one-hand shots. Incredible.

“We started having Kareem pick him up only in transition situations in the first half, and it seemed to work. Against Kareem, he (McHale) can’t just turn around and shoot that jumper. He has to shoot over Kareem.”

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Naturally, having Abdul-Jabbar on McHale was a calculated risk by the Lakers because it left 7-0 Boston center Robert Parish to either Rambis, Bob McAdoo or Mitch Kupchak. Perhaps this was the Lakers’ thinking: They knew that McHale could hurt them offensively, but they wanted Parish to prove it, too.

He did, to an extent.

Parish scored 15 of his 26 points in the second half, but he wasn’t as dominant as McHale previously had been.

Although the Lakers’ strategy worked for one night, it was McHale’s opinion that it won’t consistently shut down the Celtics’ inside game.

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“It’s silly for them to change up like that when Robert is there,” McHale said. “I don’t know how many points he had in the second half, but it was a lot. When Robert gets it going and Kareem is guarding me, I’ll take a back seat.”

Friday night, it was as if McHale had been pushed back into the trunk of the Celtics’ offense. McHale attempted only three shots in the second half even though he played all 24 minutes.

Abdul-Jabbar did whatever it took, legal or otherwise, to stop McHale. For instance, when McHale tried to drive the baseline late in the fourth quarter, Abdul-Jabbar merely shoved him out of bounds. Sure, it was a foul, and McHale made both free throws. But Abdul-Jabbar had made his point, which basically was, “Don’t try to go inside on me.”

“He (McHale) has had a great series and a great night tonight,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “But maybe I took him out of position, took his game away when I guarded him. I was just trying to make him shoot from an awkward position. And I didn’t want to give him any layups.”

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Was it much of a defensive adjustment, going from Parish to McHale?

“I think the fact that he (McHale) has a variety of shots was an adjustment,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I’ve never played against him before. A lot of those shots I had never seen before. Until I play him more, that’s going to be a problem.”

Although Riley is remaining noncommittal, Abdul-Jabbar expects to play a lot more against McHale Sunday in Game 6 at Boston.

Whether the strategy will work again isn’t certain, but McHale thinks he may have found a weakness--Abdul-Jabbar’s limited mobility.

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“I’ve just got to try to take it to the hole, make him play defense, move his feet,” McHale said. “I’ve got to move around and make him chase me.”

While that chase is going on, the Lakers’ forward no doubt will have more of a problem defending Parish Sunday. In the Boston-Philadelphia series, when the 76ers moved Moses Malone on McHale, Parish had an easy time against the smaller Charles Barkley and Bobby Jones.

“He’s bigger and stronger than our forward,” McAdoo said. “We’ve just got to put the body on Parish as much as we can, even though he outweighs us 20 to 30 pounds. We want to make him shoot farther out.”

Agreed a more pessimistic Rambis: “That’s about all we can do. . . . It (the switch) worked tonight, but I’m sure we’ll have to make some more adjustments for Sunday.”

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But if Abdul-Jabbar is still guarding McHale in Game 6, it is the Celtics who’ll have to make the adjustments.


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