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Lakers Have the Underdog’s Edge

The No. 1 motivator in sports is a feeling of persecution and lack of respect.

The classic example is the 98-pound weakling of Charles Atlas ad fame. Bully kicks sand in weakling’s face and steals his girlfriend. Weakling turns to Atlas’ system of “dynamic tension” for a week or two, bulks up to about 340 and then plays “Eye of the Tiger” with his fists on bully’s teeth.

What I’m getting at here in a roundabout way is that the Lakers should be favored to win the NBA playoffs because the Boston Celtics are favored.

Got that? Neither do I, but I’ll try to explain.

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The Lakers, according to my NBA Guide--a book, not a person--won the league championship last season, beating the Celtics in six games. It was the Lakers’ third NBA title in six seasons, which knocks out any speculation that the title was a fluke.

Since then, the Lakers have added an intimidating yet sensitive power forward, a decent rookie forward, a decent rookie center and a year of cumulative confidence, poise and experience. They breezed through the regular season. They won their first four playoff games by a million points.

So guess which team is overwhelmingly favored to win the NBA title this time?

The Celtics.

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That’s right. The Celtics are, by almost universal acclimation, favorites to beat the Lakers in the final, assuming both teams make the final. Almost all the writers I talk to, including L.A. writers, like the Celtics. That’s a gambling expression, not to be taken literally, since nobody could actually like the Celtics.

Even Chick Hearn seems concerned. The Lakers’ radio and TV announcer hasn’t slammed shut the refrigerator door on the Lakers’ fingers yet, but from the way he praises the Celtics I get the impression Chickie will be surprised if the Lakers get out of the final with so much as a moldy knackwurst sandwich.

I know the Celtics won both regular-season games against the Lakers, but that’s an almost meaningless statistic. I know the Celtics have added Bill (I Coulda Been a Laker) Walton and Jerry (Bee Sting) Sichting, and that Larry (Consensus MVP) Bird is healthy.

I also know that the Celtics had a stretch of 13 games near the end of the season where they won by an average of 16 points. And my sources say that the Celtics right now have their best half-court offense since the Bill Russell days.

But what about the Lakers? What about the equalizer, Maurice Lucas, the designated Celtic buster? What about Magic and Cooper and Worthy, playing at the peaks of their respective and collective games? What about Kareem, who has discovered the secret to reversing the aging process?

Listen, I’m not trying to honk it up for the dear old Lakers. I’m just trying to figure out why the defending champs are underdogs.

I phoned Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe. Ryan is a columnist, Celtic beat writer and hoop sage of the East. Boston Bob can’t figure it out either.

“This is the most masterful P.R. scheme in history,” Ryan shouted in his normal voice. “Somewhere down in the bowels of the Forum someone is masterminding a campaign to boost the Celtics as No. 1. This is the first time in my memory the defending champion gets a free ride, gets to go into the playoffs as an underdog.

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“The Lakers get to sit back and watch everyone crown the Celtics, which takes the pressure off them (Lakers). This is great for the Lakers. They seem to love this business of pretending to not be appreciated.”

Maybe this is all the Celtics’ own fault, I said. The Boston players do tend to do a lot of boasting and woofing and strutting and bragging, although they are otherwise very humble guys. “The Celtics are not woofing,” Ryan shouted. “The players are being very careful not to say anything. Everyone’s doing it for them. I think the Lakers ought to be grateful.”

I’m sure they are. The last two seasons, the team with the deepest PC (persecution complex) won the big series.

Two seasons ago, the Celtics concocted their own persecution. After losing to the Lakers in Game 3 of the final series, 137-104, they started weeping about how they weren’t appreciated in Boston. It was ridiculous but the Celtics worked themselves up into a self-righteous frenzy and won the series.

Last year, with Pat Riley pounding home the lack-of-respect-from-the-Celtics angle with a sledge hammer, the Lakers ran to the title.

Who’s got the edge this season? The Lakers?

Maybe, but this secret public relations scheme allegedly cooked up in the bowels of the Forum could backfire on the Lakers. The Celtics might start feeling persecuted because the Lakers are being accorded the lack of respect the Celtics feel they deserve after losing in the finals last year.

If so, the Lakers will need all the help they can get. If you L.A. fans really want to get behind your team, you can do it by showing the Lakers the lack of support they don’t deserve.

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