If the Lakers are basketball lovers instead of fighters, as popular poppycock goes, how come they have individual-issue ice packs?

"Prior injuries in other lifetimes," Los Angeles Coach Pat Riley joked.

In an NBA year, it can be close to a lifetime between, say, Nov. 10 and yesterday. That autumn date saw one of those private Laker bloodlettings that prepared them for this series of tag-team matches against the Boston Celtics for the champEEEnship of heavyweight hoops.

"We were in a bad slump, something like 4-5 at the time," Mitch Kupchak recalled. "That practice was a real knocker. Guys were squarin' off; elbows were flyin'; bodies were flyin'."

He had ice packs lettered "Mitch" strapped to his left knee and right ankle after the Lakers' 136-111 blowout in Game 3. The one clinging to fellow reserve Ronnie Lester was initialed RAL. With a touch of Hollywood, each ice pack also comes with a blue felt wrap to keep it stylishly snug.

Most other teams settle for drab-white tape.

That sort of detail suggests the Lakers return from battle, whether against each other in an empty gym or in the league playoff finals, expecting to ache.

"We'll bang with the best of the bangers," Michael Cooper insists. "We just happen to also run a lot faster."

He smiled and added:

"Know what this (game that included some gouges, some headlocks and one wicked waltz by Ray Williams and Kurt Rambis into the Laker bench) reminded me of? One of our workouts."

Any essay on image altering cannot proceed without a flashback question: wasn't it almost a year ago exactly that the Lakers seemed quite wimpy against these same Celts? Wasn't it Kevin McHale making like a half-dressed Butkus against Rambis that allegedly tipped the series Boston's way?

If the Lakers have had dockworker tendencies for so long, how could such blatant intimidation have gone unanswered?

"We weren't used to the way they play," James Worthy said.

Closer to the truth, Kupchak admitted: "When we won the first game (by six points in Boston), we whirled into a false sense of security. This year we didn't have that opportunity.

"We realized (after that 34-point loss): 'Hey, it's a battle.' These aren't games down at the Y. We're grown men, not kids. And not rookies, but in our late 20s and 30s."

The quiet assassin today for the Lakers was Worthy. He cocked no fist, flailed no elbow or even raised his voice often in anger; his was a proper legal mugging, clean and swift.

Worthy started as though he wouldn't be, going zero- for-the-first quarter; the Lakers trailed by four points. By the end of the third period, Worthy had 29 points -- and the Lakers were up 15 and cruising.

"They doubled me a little earlier than usual," he said. "Usually, I try to wait a bit (after getting the ball), see how they're gonna help. Maybe dish the ball off when the other guy comes at me.

"This time I tried to go (for his shot) a little quicker."

It's a tossup who has the quicker trigger finger in this series, Worthy or Larry Bird. Each lets fly remarkably quickly. Bird throws touch passes and throws up touch shots; Worthy probably spins into launch position faster than any forward in history.

The Celtics sometimes have been successful against Worthy by switching from Bird to the taller McHale. And although the Lakers got 12 more rebounds than Boston, Worthy had just one in 37 minutes.

"James has got to be more versatile," Riley explained. "He's also got to get his points on the break, off steals and the boards. He can't always just turn and shoot, especially against McHale."

Some of Worthy's points were thrown directly in the face of the Celtics' Chief, Robert Parish, who was pointless and reboundless the second half.

Early in the third period, Parish chose not to contest Worthy hurtling his body, missile style, from the middle of the lane for a slammer; a few minutes later, Worthy spun around Parish for a short left-handed hook.

"He's a lot like Oscar (hall of famer Robertson)," Riley said, "in the way he can turn an 18-foot shot into a 16-footer. Or a 16-footer into a 14-footer. I was an idiot. I sat him on the bench a couple of years."

For Worthy, special inspiration for this championship series comes with a flashback to a few seconds of horror from the last.

The Lakers seemingly were in control of the series, the Celts in the process of crumbling into an 0-2 heap on their home court. Then Worthy threw a cross-court pass that Gerald Henderson intercepted and converted into the basket that led to a comeback victory in overtime.

Of the 360-some days since, how many have passed without Worthy reliving that catastrophe?

Almost none, he allowed.

"But so many people asked me about it so often during the summer that I got over it. Pushed it (nearly) to the back of my mind."

What got to the front of nobody's mind was that Worthy also was 11 for 12 from the field and scored 29 points that night of infamy.

"Not a person brought that up," he said.

Neither did anyone emphasize that Worthy set a championship-series record by hitting 63.8 per cent of his field goal tries.

"Sometimes you've got to stand tall," he said, about himself and the team. "When push comes to shove, you've gotta be a man."