Lakers Struggle to Find Motivation : Perhaps Celtics Will Provide It as Championship Favorites : 1986 NBA PLAYOFFS

Times Staff Writer

On the night the regular season ended, Laker Coach Pat Riley also reached a conclusion.

"The marathon is over," he said.

But now, another is beginning. In two months, if everything goes as expected, the Lakers will be playing in another NBA title series, probably against the Boston Celtics, and probably as the underdog.

Is that any way to treat the defending NBA champions? Can you just give them a hearty handshake and then a swift kick?

"The Celtics have already, in so many words, dethroned us," Riley said. "They're already planning the coronation back in Boston Garden. So be it."

So be it?

Yes, the Lakers are getting themselves worked up again, bouncing around on their mental trampolines.

If there is any single theme running through Laker minds these days, it is this idea that they are not getting the respect they deserve. Not from other teams, not from the fans and certainly not from the press.

This team wins 62 games for the second season in a row and figures that ought to be worth something, but the Lakers truly believe it hasn't exactly worked out that way.

Probing the Laker state of mind has always been a risky business, but the Lakers seem to be entering the playoffs with a rather novel approach for defending champions.

They're coming in with chips on their shoulders. For the last week or two, animosity has been cropping up. One of the most outspoken Lakers on the subject is Magic Johnson.

"All those other teams who say they can beat us will all have to come through us to get where they want to go," he said.

"We won over 60 games two years in a row. But there are some people who expect every one of those games to be blowouts. It don't happen that way. Since I've been here, this team has not gotten any respect.

"I love the position we're in," Johnson said. "I've always loved being the underdog. We could win 70 games and it would be the same. They just don't respect the Lakers. It don't matter to me, though. We'll do our thing out on the court."

When things are going right for them on the court, the Lakers are a thing of beauty. Still, they can't shake a lingering perception that they didn't play as well as they could have during the regular season.

"The price of success," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said.

There is, of course, another explanation. Maybe the Lakers didn't play as well as they might have.

Not even all the Lakers agree on that issue, but as long as the idea is around, there appears to be a consensus to use it to their advantage, which just may be a brilliant piece of strategy.

"Even though I think we may not have played our best basketball on a consistent basis, we always found a way to win," Riley said. "That is the trademark of a veteran team, this one in particular.

"I don't think there's any doubt we're ready . . . and I'm talking about winning the championship," he said.

James Worthy intends to get himself ready by spending the next day or so before the San Antonio series working on boosting his interest level. He admitted that it might have tailed off a bit since the season opened in October.

Worthy has no doubt it will be high once the playoffs begin, but he admitted that as a team, the Lakers might not have had the same drive this season as they did a year ago. Last year, the Lakers went into the playoffs with a mission, after having lost to Boston in 1984 in a seven-game series that left the Lakers "psychologically numb," according to Riley.

"As far as morale being there, I don't think we had it this year," Worthy said. "We are hungry. We were hungry last year because we had been beaten, but I think the morale was more consistent over that whole year.

"This year, we always wanted to win, but during those times when the barriers were there, we sorta didn't give it all we had to get over them, even though we always just got over them.

"At this point, I'm just trying to conjure up that enthusiasm right now."

It remains to be seen whether the Lakers' mental approach will matter as much as Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook, Johnson's no-look passes, Worthy's quickness on post-up moves or Maurice Lucas' rebounding.

But for right now, it's clearly the Laker theme.

"Last year, it was 'Will Boston repeat?' " Laker guard Byron Scott said. "Now, it's "Will Boston win the title?' It's not 'Will the Lakers repeat?' Everything is turned around in Boston's favor.

"There's no doubt about it, they've had a great year. But we're like the Rodney Dangerfield of the NBA. No matter how much we win, other teams don't have any respect for us. If it's not Denver, it's Houston, or it's Boston.

Riley said: "Teams are always blowing their horn about how they are going to beat us. They're knocking on the door, we're hearing them coming, it's going to be their year, all those things."

Perhaps closer attuned to the Laker psyches than anybody else, Riley said he altered some of his coaching technique this season from a year ago.

"I believe I have calmed down a little bit this year," he said. "I've kept things in a little more perspective. I've driven them when I thought they needed it and I've laid off when I felt they needed that.

"When it comes right down to the bottom line, I haven't felt the pressure this year as I did when we lost to Boston in the seventh game. Last year was the pressure year. This year I felt much more comfortable because I didn't get caught up in the expectation level of everyone else."

But now it's the time of the year when expectation levels really start soaring. Looking for the tiniest edge over an opponent, or maybe even to stir up their own inner drive way down deep, the Lakers may really have found a way to take a liability and turn it to their advantage.

Would they do something like that?

"I really can't say," Scott said. "All I know is, for whatever reason, once the playoffs start, you'll probably see the kind of Laker team that began the season.

"We were real into it then," he said. "We had intensity, fire and emotion then. I think you'll see all those things back."

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