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Laker Start Even Has Coach Talking About Some Record Numbers

Times Staff Writer

Only 11 games into the season, the Lakers have an attitude problem. Will their heads swell so big that they cannot fit into the locker room? Actually, this is more than just a problem, it is a state of mind, and that makes it all the more dangerous.

There really isn’t anything the Lakers can do about their mental outlook with the possible exception of going out and losing some games, which is considered the ultimate in attitude adjustment.

Until then, the Lakers are just going to have to deal with all the problems that go along with being 10-1. What problems?

“Like overconfidence,” Mitch Kupchak said. “If we were something like 52-9, we would have proven something. We’ve lost to Cleveland, which is a good team, but not a great team. So you can imagine what a great team would have done to us. Our minds were in another sphere that night.”

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The Lakers have managed to localize their thoughts pretty well, outside of that one slip. They’ve won games when Magic Johnson was out and they’re continuing to win without Byron Scott. It’s early for this kind of talk, but the Lakers have a chance to win more games than any other team in NBA history. Even Laker Coach Pat Riley is discussing such a possibility.

“This team is better than the 1971-72 Laker team,” Riley said. “I was the sixth man on that team, so it couldn’t have been that deep. But until this team wins 33 in a row, wins 69 in a season and then blitzes through the championship series, you can’t compare results.”

Riley is the caretaker of the Laker psyche, in addition to his usual coaching duties. This is a job he takes quite seriously, but the normally cautious Riley does not shy away from talk that the Lakers might finish the season with as few as 13 defeats.

“A case could be made for that,” Riley said. “This team expects to win every night.”

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The Lakers get another chance tonight when they play the Clippers at the Forum. The last time they played, the Lakers won by 31 points and that was one of five Laker victories this season by at least 18.

Winning has come so easily for the Lakers that the players are purposely taking a low-key approach to their early season success. They aren’t doing it by accident, either.

“I try to like keep it down,” Magic Johnson said. “We’ll let everybody else talk about how many games we’ll win. At this point, we’ve still got a lot of work to do and a long way to go.”

James Worthy said the Lakers can neither afford to get too high when they win nor too low when they lose, if they ever start doing that.

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“We can’t allow ourselves to get too confident,” he said. “We can’t sit down and just relax. We know we can be beat.”

The Laker sense of well-being didn’t just happen by chance. It is considered a part of Laker game preparation, just like diagramming plays or studying videotapes. Riley believes it is vital that the Lakers employ a game plan for “peripheral opponents,” such as how the Lakers are affected by their attitude.

As early as training camp, Riley wasn’t as concerned about how well the Lakers would play as he was about shaping their mental outlook. Riley told the Lakers that they didn’t have anything left to prove after beating the Celtics. He said the Lakers should enjoy the season on the way to the playoffs and the final series.

“We’ll be there again if we mind our P’s and Q’s,” Riley said. “We don’t want to be striving, striving, striving or we’ll burn ourselves out.”

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There is more to the development of the Laker state of mind. Riley doesn’t want the Lakers to be deceived by winning so many games this early. He went so far as to say winning could be a little damaging because the Lakers might think the victories are coming too easily. And when Riley took a look at his own reaction, he decided to change, too.

“I’m not going to jump on them when they slide for a game or two and get beat,” he said. “They do it two or three times every year and they’ll do it this year. I know that. It’s a natural phenomenon. Every team in the league has a slide period. Are we any different?”

They are so far. Maybe they’ll have tougher tests, as Kupchak suggests, when they play more Eastern Conference teams. Maybe it won’t make any difference. The Lakers are winning games while low-keying it at the same time and neither one is much of an accident.


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