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Lackluster Play Has Lakers Concerned, but They Aren’t Panicking

Times Staff Writer

The Lakers are not denying that something is amiss. Opinion differs only on the breadth and scope of their problems, which have resulted in 3 losses in the last 4 games on this marathon Eastern trip.

But the Lakers are far from panic-stricken as they prepare to face the Washington Bullets tonight at Capital Centre. That is mainly because the defeats have occurred near the end of an early-season stretch in which they were scheduled to play 19 of 29 games on the road.

Nevertheless, there is no shortage of furrowed brows among the players. That is because their sluggish play, manifested in poor shot selection, stilted offensive movement and lack of effort, began before the trip.

In the last month, the Lakers struggled at times at the Forum. Although they blew out Utah and Phoenix at home, they also had trouble beating Seattle, the Clippers and Washington. The situation has only been magnified on this trip, which spans 7 games and 11 days. They struggled to beat Indiana, took a 1-point loss in Milwaukee, played one of their best games of the season against Cleveland, then fell hard against New Jersey and Boston.

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The lapse was not totally unexpected by Coach Pat Riley. Riley said that when he scanned the schedule before the season, he wrote down a won-lost goal for the first 29 games.

“We’re ahead of the record I had us at,” said Riley, whose team is 16-6. “But I’m concerned about the next 2 weeks. We’ve got to narrow our focus and not drop the games we should win.”

It could be argued that even if the Lakers had not played so poorly in Friday night’s 110-96 loss, they would have had a difficult time beating the Celtics, who played their best overall game of the season. What irks Riley most were the 2 previous come-from-ahead road defeats.

“Those buzzer-beaters have drained us,” Riley said. “That was mental. We had the lead both times, and we let it get away. But I think the players are aware now.”

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Riley does not offer any remedies other than finding the time for practice on the road to work out the technical problems, and time for a little rest to renew the Lakers’ mental state.

The players are aware of their problems, which include failure to initiate the fast break, stagnancy in the half-court offense and poor defensive judgment, which was responsible for the losses to Milwaukee and New Jersey.

Two of the three defeats occurred after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recovered from a bruised knee that had sidelined him for 7 games. Although the Lakers rely more on a set-up offense with Abdul-Jabbar in the lineup, they say the adjustment to his return has been the least of their problems.

“When he’s back, we’re still basically the same team,” James Worthy said of Abdul-Jabbar. “We still try to run, whether he’s in there or not. We look (to score) in the low post a little more, but we still do the same things. We just aren’t getting it done.”

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Added guard Byron Scott: “Offensively and defensively, we haven’t played well. It might take awhile to get it back. We’ve developed some bad habits on this road trip, and we have to get back to the drawing board.”

Although some Lakers regard this slump as a major problem, Scott believes it is merely a lull.

“I don’t think we’re in trouble,” Scott said. “We’re just not playing the way that we should. But we are still capable of playing the way we had. I don’t think we can get it all back against Washington, but it shouldn’t take long.”

The Lakers hope that spending more time at the Forum will rejuvenate them.

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This trip ends Tuesday night in Chicago, and the Lakers will return home for a game Friday night against Sacramento. Then they will play at Utah on Christmas Day and at Phoenix the next night.

After that, the Lakers will play 16 of 25 games at the Forum.

Riley has not been able to tinker much with the Laker machinery because of the hectic road schedule. The team has had only 2 practices in the last 10 days.

“We’ve been on the road 7 of the 9 weeks of the season, and that’s where the fatigue comes from,” Riley said. “We haven’t really had a productive practice in a while, because we haven’t had the time. We have to try to get the flow back. But that’s no excuse for losing.”

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