Despite a 41-15 record and a 14 1/2-game lead in the NBA's Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in an unsettling position.
The Lakers have won just seven of their last 14 games away from the Forum, which hasn't been all that fabulous for them, either. Overall, Los Angeles has won just 10 of its last 19 games.
Such mediocrity is a far cry from what one would expect from "the best team in history," which is what some were calling the Lakers earlier this season when they were 31-6.
There is little doubt now that the Boston Celtics have the best team in basketball. They have proven that by beating the Lakers both times they have played them this season.
For Los Angeles Coach Pat Riley, though, the nadir apparently was a 121-106 loss to the Nets in New Jersey last Friday. According to reports, Riley sat in complete silence for the entire 2 1/2-hour ride from the Meadowlands to Philadelphia, where the Lakers won, 117-111, in overtime Sunday. Another low came Monday night, when the Atlanta Hawks beat Los Angeles, 102-93, ending a streak of 12 straight losses to the Lakers.
The Lakers still have the NBA's best fast break, but the defending champions are surprisingly fragile in other areas.
Forward James Worthy missed the New Jersey and Philadelphia games and was sent home early from the squad's eastern swing because of a bruised groin. Guard Magic Johnson has been playing for the past month with a sore knee. Byron Scott, a season-long starter, was benched by Riley, who felt that his recent marriage had distracted the guard. Scott started against the 76ers and after the victory, Riley said he felt everything would return to normal soon.
"It's just the biological clock of our players, our January-February slump," Riley said, referring to lulls that have afflicted the Lakers for the past three winters. "Somehow, we seem to fall into the same rut. I can look back at my notes and all the speeches and all the talks are all the same and come at the same time.
"People have already started to write us off. We're judged harshly, and deservedly so. We set very high standards for ourselves and the last couple of weeks have been very painful because we don't like to lose, but we'll be fine."
One of the more interested onlookers at the Lakers-76ers game Sunday in Philadelphia was forward Kenny Green, the Washington Bullets' first-round draft choice last June. Green, who was traded to the 76ers for guard Leon Wood on Jan. 10, didn't play in the game but he scored four points in eight minutes against the Bullets in a 97-87 Philadelphia win on Friday.
Green has averaged 10 minutes and 4.6 points in 13 games with the 76ers and Pat Williams, the 76ers' general manager, says the team is pleased with its end of the deal.
"We haven't been able to get him a lot of minutes, especially since we acquired free agent forward Bob McAdoo, but when he's gotten on the court Kenny's shown great skills," Williams said. "I think the difference between here and Washington is that Kenny will be more willing to sit on the bench here, given our team's stature and record through the years. With Washington, I don't think he ever understood why he wasn't playing 40 minutes a night right from the start.
"That's how the business can be sometimes. But you have to remember that Kenny is still very young. He's barely 21; when he gives autographs he signs them in crayon."
The Lakers-76ers game probably was the NBA regular season's last game of major import. The Boston-Philadelphia rivalry, once considered the league's version of the Holy Wars, has been considerably muted by the play of the Celtics, who have an 8 1/2-game lead over the Atlantic Division runner-up 76ers.
In the Western Conference, Houston, which leads the Midwest Division, is making noises about challenging the Lakers. But even when Rockets center Akeem Olajuwon, presently out with a knee injury, has been healthy, Los Angeles has soundly beaten them twice this season.
The Rockets have a 1 1/2-game lead over Denver and the teams will play each other twice in the next week. After that, the closest race is in the Central Division, where Milwaukee has a seven-game lead over Atlanta and Detroit. Any drama will be in the struggle for playoff positioning.
The Bullets trail the Nets by two games for third place in the Atlantic Division. The difference between finishing second or third, third or fourth comes into play when the postseason approaches.
If the regular season were to end today, the Eastern Conference pairings would be Boston-Cleveland, Milwaukee-Washington, Philadelphia-New Jersey and Atlanta-Detroit, with the team listed first having the home-court advantage in the best-of-five series.