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It’s the Time of Year When Magic Man Is Up to His Tricks

When do the playoffs start?

Say what? These are the playoffs?

The NBA playoffs are supposed to be thrilling games, fiercely contested gladiator battles that send the fans into a collective frenzy.

The Lakers are four games into the so-called playoffs and are still looking for a game. The Forum fans have left a wake-up call for Boston.

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Cumulative four-game score: Lakers 501, Riff-Raff 392.

I have studied the situation and I think I have isolated the problem, aside from the NBA’s lofty eligibility standards--only teams with their own jerseys and shoes are allowed into postseason play.

The problem is Earvin Magic Johnson.

Is there no way to calm this man down?

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Soothing music? Tranquilizer darts? A subscription to National Geographic?

To steal an old Warren Zevon song title, Magic is the Lakers’ Excitable Boy.

I know, that’s Magic’s style, that’s the way he always plays. And he always gets even more excitable in the playoffs. But this postseason, the man is out of control.

He’s shooting 66% from the floor, and averaging 15.5 assists and 18.3 points, but it’s what he’s doing after the whistles that is causing all this trouble.

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In one game, after Mitch Kupchak made a tough inside shot and was fouled, Johnson attacked Kupchak. Magic butted shoulders with Kupchak, and shouted in his face like a drill sergeant.

He’s done the same type of thing to other teammates. He can’t help himself. He’s got playoff fever.

“Magic is really into it,” Kupchak said. “As Magic and Kareem go, the Lakers follow. That was evident last year in the second game of the Boston series (when Kareem came back from the dead to lead the Lakers to a win and eventually to the title). Everyone pretty much jumped on Kareem’s coattails.

“It’s the same with Magic this year. He’s really into it, and it’s rubbing off. I wasn’t here his first season or two, but I hear he was real enthusiastic. Now, in the playoffs, he’s like that, much more vocal and enthusiastic (than during the regular season).

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“He’s more vocal during team meetings, it’s obvious he’s taking more of a role than he did in the past. He’s encouraging us, slapping guys, going to the hoop.

“It effects his play, and mine. He knows I’m an emotional player, too. At one time I was a pretty good athlete, but now I depend more on confidence, intensity, and something like that can bring it out.”

It may sound silly right now, when the Lakers are making like an Indy car at the Kentucky Derby, but this kind of enthusiasm can come in handy in the playoffs, especially if it all comes down to a series against Gang Green.

But Magic can’t hold back. He operates on two speeds: Regular season, and winnin’ time.

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“When the playoffs come, my game definitely changes,” Johnson said. “I go up to another level, I have to. I think it just comes naturally, it just happens. It’s like an automatic button.”

With no shut-off switch. Magic even has signals, one for each of his teammates, that he gives them whenever they do something special.

With Kupchak, it’s the shoulder shiver, a violent little move that John Robinson should consider teaching the Rams’ offensive linemen.

“Mitch likes to be physical, so I gotta bump him,” Magic said.

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With Byron Scott, it’s the “wind it up!” sign, like a referee’s traveling signal, only tighter and faster. With Kurt Rambis it’s a “roll it up!” sign, which looks something like a baker speed-mixing cake batter.

If Michael Cooper does something sweet, he and Magic exchange malevolent stares and finger points.

“With Kareem,” Magic says, “I just wait on him. When he gets going, he’s ready for the high five.”

Or is it the sky five?

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If Magic seems even more exciteable than usual this early in the playoffs, there’s a good reason.

“We have a few key guys that are new, and I have to do that, I gotta be a little more vocal,” he said. "(Maurice) Lucas, and Petur (Gudmundsson) and A.C. (Green), I have to keep ‘em going, so they realize how the Lakers play. Everyone else, they know.”

Lucas, of course, needs an intensity boost like Jack Nicholson needs better seats.

Still, Lucas says: “Magic’s our leader, and we count on him to guide us.”

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But do the Lakers really need all this excitement this early, against the, uh, less imposing teams in the Western Conference?

“We needed something to drag us through that dreadful three games (against San Antonio),” Kupchak said.

And Magic said: “You can’t really waste enthusiasm. You always have days in between games to recharge.

“You lay back (between games) so much, you’re ready, you’re ready. You wanna play . You wanna run around crazy and have some fun.”

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Now if someone could only calm the young man down, we could restore some semblance of competitive balance to the playoffs.

Maybe Larry Bird has some ideas.


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