Magic Raises Questions About Laker Confusion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

That pothole in the Lakers' road to nowhere Thursday night, as if the drive wasn't filled with enough bad scenery anyway, apparently has been patched, or at least cleared with only minor internal damage.

Friday, the offense went up on the rack to find the cause of the sputtering attack, reducing it to an 83-point, 22-turnover, 34.9%-shooting Edsel. The flashlight went on Coach Del Harris, because Magic Johnson put it there.

Johnson had been blunt in his assessment of the 87-83 Game 1 loss to the Houston Rockets, noting that the Lakers seemed lost with the ball but more specifically that his game was messed up because Harris couldn't decide where to play him. Maybe Harris was trying to take advantage of his versatility, but either way, the series was 2 1/2 hours old and the team leader was frustrated.

"In the first half, he didn't want me to post at all," Johnson said after the Lakers had lost the home-court advantage with the defeat.

"In the second half, he said, 'OK, now post.' Now, wait a minute. I'm used to posting. Now he doesn't want me to post. I'm wavering. I'm going back and forth. It's a real weird role for me to play when I'm used to something different. Then I tried to turn it on and then it wasn't there."

So why the confusion?

"Well," Johnson said, "I'm going to just pass on that one."

With a response like that, he didn't need to.

By the next afternoon, after the Lakers had practiced in preparation for Game 2 today at 12:30 at the Forum, Harris had been apprised of the criticism. His reaction came in a calm tone, but clearly this was a bothersome issue with a far more pressing matter--the Rockets--in his face. He didn't need a critique from within, even one authored by a future Hall of Famer, and certainly not in such a public way and not now.

"The last thing I would try to do is take a team playing so successfully and then change it with two days' practice," Harris said of the Lakers, who won 12 of their final 16 regular-season games. "If he perceives a change, then that's what he thinks. But there has been no change."

At least in the last 20 games or so. That's when Johnson made the transition from post-up player in the early stages of a comeback to the point power forward that gives the Lakers a unique weapon, one that continued even as he began to operate more as the small forward.

He was spending more time on the perimeter, which he liked. He was controlling the offense, which he liked even more. But come Thursday, no Laker was controlling much of anything on offense, and Johnson missed several of the hooks he has made consistently in the past, finishing four for 11 from the field but getting to 20 points by making 10 of 12 free throws.

"I think Earvin gets frustrated," Harris said. "He's accustomed to winning on a consistent basis. I think he gets frustrated when he loses, like everybody does. It would have been better if we had Earvin all year, it would have been better if he hadn't been injured, it would have been better if he hadn't been suspended, so we've had to kind of work him in on the fly. We're doing the best that we can do to work his game into the team game. Everybody's trying to adjust to him.

"He's out there and has the ability to call any play he wants to call. . . . I would say that's up to him, to call the plays he wants to call, because it's up to him."

Said Johnson on Friday: "You have to get a clear understanding within the game. When you make adjustments, you've got to make them and tell me beforehand, not within the game because then my mind-set is one way and I have to change all the way. I was coming in ready offensively and then it was, 'I want you to be a passer.' I didn't know that until I was in the game.

"All I want is to know that beforehand, then I can adjust my mind."

Now, he said, he knows.

"It was cleared up today," Johnson said after practice. "But when you're in the playoffs, in the heat of the battle, you've got to know these things so you can prepare. But we'll be all right. We've just got to knock down some shots."

Some help may be on the way. Anthony Peeler, originally thought to be out until at least Game 3 on Tuesday because of the strained right calf muscle, continues to improve faster than expected and might play today. It'll be a game-time decision.

Peeler, the backup shooting guard who had averaged 13.8 points the final 10 games of the regular season before suffering the injury in the fourth quarter of the finale on Sunday, even participated in the light workout at the Forum. He had done some light jogging the day before, but Friday marked the first time he has jumped off the leg.

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