An uncomfortable silence followed Laker Coach Pat Riley’s scathing evaluation of his team here Tuesday night, a pointed commentary in which he questioned their desire and mental preparation and even made a derogatory reference to their high salaries.
Not wanting dead air, apparently, a local television reporter felt compelled to ask: “Pat, on a more positive note, what about the upcoming playoffs?”
It was the wrong question posed to the wrong person on the wrong night. After watching the Phoenix Suns thrash the Lakers, 127-104, before 14,471 fans at the Memorial Coliseum, Riley’s sole concern was the current state of his team.
Riley said this game was “unquestionably the Lakers’ worst of the season.” He said the Lakers were “humiliated” and said they “quit” at the first hint of a challenge. He called for changes--of attitude, not personnel--if they want to salvage their NBA title defense.
“We came out tonight and quit,” Riley said, jumping into a monologue before a question could be asked. “Obviously, I haven’t gotten through to the players. There’s something tremendously lacking, and they just think they can turn it on.
“I have failed miserably in trying to drive home how important this is. A serious inventory from an individual standpoint has to happen. What is happening now shouldn’t be happening to a team trying to win a championship. We were humiliated tonight.”
With 14 regular-season games left, the Lakers aren’t exactly in dire shape. Even after Tuesday’s loss, they still lead the Suns by three games in the Pacific Division and still have the Western Conference’s best record.
But what is particularly irksome to Riley is the Lakers’ recent bout with inertia. Instead of gearing up for the playoffs, they seem to be grinding to a halt. The Lakers have won four of their last seven games, but three of the victories have come in the final seconds.
Then, there was Tuesday night’s pratfall, in which the Lakers shot just 39.8%, literally watched the Suns make 60.5% of their shots and seemingly called it a night during Phoenix’s 26-5 run at the start of the second half.
Although some discount regular-season results come playoff time, Riley is concerned with the Lakers’ inability to win--or even come close--on the road against their chief Western Conference competition. They now have lost all three games in Phoenix, by an average of 18.3 points, and also were blown out twice in Utah.
But Pat, about the playoffs . . .
“I won’t talk about the playoffs,” Riley snapped at the television reporter’s question. “We just don’t go on the road with any kind of commitment. The first time we get (challenged), we deflate and give up and say, ‘We’ll get them in the playoffs.’ That’s the same attitude we had in ’86 (when the Lakers were eliminated by Houston in the Western Conference finals).
“I didn’t see one flash of anger in these guys tonight. I saw a bunch of blank faces just taking it, left and right. I just hope we can conjure up enough competitiveness and pride to change it.”
Asked if his critical statements were veiled threats in hopes of awakening his players, Riley shrugged.
“How can I get that through to them when they all make three or four million dollars,” he said.
“It’s not about threats, it’s about individual pride. It has to do with making a continuous statement about who you are. I can talk until I’m blue in the face about stats, but they mean this one thing: It shows a level of inconsistency with key players, night in and night out. It’s always somebody else who’s not ready to play, and we can’t afford that.”
Tuesday night, it appeared the entire Laker team was not prepared for a Suns’ onslaught, led by Tom Chambers with 28 points, Kevin Johnson with 24 points and 17 assists, and Eddie Johnson with 21 points off the bench.
The Lakers, meanwhile, got 24 points and 11 rebounds from James Worthy and 20 points from Mychal Thompson, about the only productive offensive players.
Magic Johnson, attempting just four shots, had 10 points, 14 assists and four turnovers. Byron Scott made only 4 for 19 shots, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 3 of 14 and Michael Cooper 3 of 9.
In short, it was a terrible performance. But Laker players didn’t seem nearly as emotionally wrought over the loss as Riley.
Johnson, for one, agreed with Riley on some points, but said he needed time to formulate a response to the most severe of Riley’s criticisms.
“He has a good gripe,” Johnson said. “He should be upset. We should be taking care of business. Tonight, he should be on our case. It was a bad game, and we weren’t ready. It’s hard to debate what he says.
“But as far as our commitment for the season, we have it. We just aren’t playing well offensively. We haven’t played the same way we have been playing earlier. We just have to go back to what we were doing.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, honored before Tuesday night’s game as part of his farewell tour, will be sentenced at 8:15 this morning at Phoenix Municipal Court on a misdemeanor charge of assault and damaging property stemming from an incident in a Phoenix shopping mall last April. The rest of the Laker traveling party returned to Los Angeles late Tuesday night. Abdul-Jabbar’s only reference to his impending sentencing was a well-executed joke at the end of his ceremony. “I was told there would be one extra gift for me here--a get-out-of-jail-free card.” . . . As parting gifts, Abdul-Jabbar received custom made golf clubs, a bronze sculpture and a plaque commemorating how the Suns lost the coin flip for the first pick in the 1969 draft. The Milwaukee Bucks won the flip and selected Abdul-Jabbar. The Suns picked Neal Walk with the second pick. Walk presented Abdul-Jabbar with the plaque during the pregame ceremony.
Phoenix Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons on Abdul-Jabbar: “I didn’t think I’d ever see a dinosaur on this earth in my lifetime. I have seen players come and go, but Kareem has set standards so high that any of you young people will never see another dinosaur walk the earth. The one thing that stands out is that, whether he scored 33 points or three points, his only interest was to win the game.”
The Suns and the city of Phoenix Tuesday announced plans to build a $60-million arena that would seat 17,500. Pending approval by the city council, the city would lease the arena and the parking structure to the Suns for $500,000 per year.