Putting one little word after another and whatever became of Willis Reed? . . . Those with a healthy admiration for team balance are picking the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers to repeat their National Basketball Association playoff final of a year ago.
Even though Philadelphia finished 10 games behind Boston in the NBA's Atlantic Division, the 76ers won their season's series from the Celtics four games to two. Philadelphia, which resumes its best-of-five playoff series tonight against New Jersey trailing 0-1, played 11 games this year minus Moses Malone, who was out with injuries and was actually below par physically for a couple of weeks after his return.
Offensively Los Angeles provides opponents with one of the most difficult problems in that area of strategy known as matchups, meaning the balance of personnel between teams. Kansas City is currently grappling with this challenge and will fall behind L.A. 0-2 in playoff action if solutions aren't found tonight. Most opponents don't have guards clever enough to defend L.A.'s Magic Johnson or a center who can contain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who recently broke Wilt Chamberlain's all-time NBA scoring record. The 76ers and the Lakers may also have the league's best set of reserves.
Explained one NBA scout, who asked to remain anonymous: ''Whenever the playoffs come around, I always look to see which teams didn't play to their potential during the regular season, and there were only two this year - Philadelphia and Los Angeles. With the 76ers, it was because of losing Malone for so many games. Once you've fallen behind and the schedule is beginning to run out, you lose your incentive to catch up.
''With the Lakers, it was partly injuries, plus a feeling that team has always projected that it can turn its offense on whenever it feels like it, which is a bad habit to get into. The point is that all other NBA clubs, no matter how hard they try, simply don't have the potential to improve in the playoffs as much as Philadelphia and Los Angeles.''
This particular scout also believes that if the NBA's most valuable player award were to be decided by a vote of the players, and not the writers, the winner would come up Magic Johnson instead of Boston's Larry Bird. However, he thinks Bird will get it on the basis of Boston's better regular-season record.
Appling's unintended homer
OK baseball fans, try fielding this question:
What 75-year-old Hall of Fame shortstop hit a home run off Warren Spahn in an Oldtimers Game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., two years ago? The question has become one of baseball's most popular trivia teasers. The answer is Luke Appling, who amassed 2,749 hits in 20 years with the Chicago White Sox.
''It was funny about that home run,'' Appling, a batting instructor with the Atlanta Braves, told me in spring training, ''because I was just trying to get the bat out in front of the plate so that I wouldn't embarrass myself by dribbling the ball off my wrist.'' As a matter of fact, Luke was never known for his power; hitting only 45 lifetime home runs for Chicago, although he did win the American League batting title in 1936 and 1943.
Appling also told about the time in the spring of 1937, after hitting .388 the previous season, when he sat down with White Sox Owner Lou Comiskey to work out a new contract.
''I expected a raise and I got one, from $18,500 to $20,000,'' Luke recalled. ''Then just as I was about to leave Comiskey's office, he told me that because attendance hadn't been all that good in 1936, all he could really afford to pay me was $18,500. Me, I just wanted to play baseball, so I tore up the contract I'd just signed and agreed to his figure. I'll tell you something else: I was never sorry I turned down that raise. This year, as a batting coach, I made more in meal money during spring training than some of my early contracts paid me for an entire season.''
Tracy Austin, who has made only infrequent appearances on the women's pro tennis tour in the past year because of a shoulder injury, finally went to Australia for 21/2 months to try and improve her game. ''Tony Roche (former Aussie Davis Cupper) helped me, but the main thing I learned is that I'm never going to be myself again until I'm injury free.'' Questioned about the dominance of Martina Navratilova in women's tennis, Austin replied: ''One of the reasons Martina wins all the time is because she is a superior athlete to everyone else on the tour. She has also reached the point where everything that used to bother her on court, like losing control of herself mentally after she'd made a couple of bad shots, no longer affects her game.'' . . . Alice Marble, the only player ever to win singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon, plus the United States Championship in the same year (1939), still turns heads in Palm Springs, Calif. Marble, who is tennis coordinator at Palm Desert Country Club, recently gave this quote to Palm Springs Magazine: ''I was different from the other women players of my day in that I was the first woman ever to consistently rush the net. I was the Martina Navratilova of my time, the first woman who wasn't afraid to play like a man.'' . . . The La Quinta (Calif.) Tennis Club has perhaps the most complete racket facility in the world. Located about 19 miles south of Palm Springs and sheltered by the Santa Rosa Mountains, La Quinta has 12 hardcourts, four grass courts, and three new clay courts. The latter are the first to be designed with a man-made underground watering system.
Batter up for US Olympians
To prepare for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, the US national baseball team will take part in a grueling seven-week training tour. With the exception of four dates, the squad plans to work out or play every day from June 11 until the start of the demonstration Olympic competition begins July 31.
In one of the finest cooperative efforts between amateur and professional baseball, the US team will play approximately 40 games while appearing in 15 major league ballparks and a dozen minor league cities and towns. Along the way, it will compete against minor league and international teams, as well as several college all-star contingents.