L.A., Boston centers are pivotal in NBA championship series

From his vantage point as general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, Jerry West was talking briefly about the Boston Celtics, the team L.A. must defeat to win this year's National Basketball Association championship.

''One big plus for us is the fact that nobody on the Celtics plays Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who scored 32 points in the Lakers' 115-109 opening game victory) very well,'' West explained. ''If everyone else is covered, we've always got the option of feeding the ball inside to Kareem. And usually, when he turns in to the basket, there isn't anybody who can stop him without fouling. Of course if Kareem makes the basket and the free throw, it becomes a three-point play.

''However I've been in enough playoff games myself with the old Lakers (he was referring to people like Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Frank Selvy), to know that the breaks have an awful lot to do with who wins,'' West continued. ''Years ago, in a seventh game against the Celtics, we lost a game we probably should have won when a ball hit the rim at the buzzer and Boston got the rebound. Instead of winning, we lost to the Celtics by three points in overtime.''

Going into Game 2 of the best-of-seven series at Boston Garden tonight, Los Angeles is obviously assured of at least a split before returning to the L.A. Forum for Game 3 on Sunday and Game 4 on Wednesday. Naturally the Lakers are hoping to win tonight too, but the pressure is clearly on the Celtics, who can hardly afford to lose two straight games in their own building.

The positive mental attitude and physical ability of 37-year-old Abdul-Jabbar has been of tremendous value in this year's playoffs because of what he has been able to generate offensively. Kansas City couldn't stop him; Dallas made some futile attempts to double team him; and Phoenix, despite one game in which it held him to 13 points, also couldn't hold the big man down for an entire series.

Boston center Robert Parish, who must guard Kareem for between 35 and 40 minutes a game in this series, so far has not been able to halt Abdul-Jabbar without fouling him. Too many fouls and Parish is on the bench, which means that Boston coach K.C. Jones is forced to make adjustments that curtail his club both offensively and defensively. Even though Parish is normally an effective shot blocker, Kareem's skyhook is something he usually waves at as it goes into the basket.

The fact is the Celtics as a team do not match up against the Lakers nearly as well as they would have against Phoenix, for example, had the Suns been their final-round opponent.

Michael Cooper, the 6 ft. 7 in. guard who moves to forward against Boston's Larry Bird, may not score much, but the price he makes Bird pay for his points is inflation at its highest level.

L.A.'s other starting forward, Kurt Rambis, is not above wrapping all 220 pounds of himself around Boston's Cedric Maxwell, who did not run well and was not effective in Game 1. Boston does have an all-star guard in Dennis Johnson, whose statistics have actually gone up in the playoffs. Realizing that Dennis is a little too clever for the Lakers' Mike McGee to guard and a little too experienced for rookie Byron Scott to handle on a regular basis, L.A. had 6-9 Magic Johnson guard him in Game 1. Even then, Dennis scored 23 points.

On the other side of the ledger, the Celtics have their troubles in containing Johnson, who a lot of people think is the NBA's Most Valuable Player. Magic is a multi-talented athlete who tailors his game to whatever is needed at the moment.

The 17 points per game that Johnson averaged during the regular season could easily have been 25 if Magic didn't prefer playmaking to scoring. Asking Celtics' guard Gerald Henderson to go one-on-one against Johnson is a lot like asking an assembly-line car to win the Indianapolis 500.

While Boston probably has pro basketball's best sixth man in Kevin McHale, the Lakers have the kind of scoring power off the bench to nullify McHale's offense in James Worthy and Bob McAdoo. Worthy, right now, probably has as strong an inside game as anyone in the league.

What Boston has to do if this series is to go beyond six games, is get more defense from Parish against Kareem than it has so far; have Bird increase his first-half offense; and hope that Dennis Johnson continues his sharp play. The Celtics could also increase their chances of winning by doing a better job of denying Magic Johnson the basketball.

Although the following strays somewhat from the playoff there is speculation that within two years Houston center Ralph Sampson (this season's NBA Rookie of the Year) will be wearing either a Los Angeles or New York Knicks uniform.

There are rumors that the Rockets, unable to afford both Sampson and seven-foot center Akeem Olajuwon, who they will draft officially in mid-June, will trade Sampson after next season for two players and $1.5 million. With Abdul-Jabbar scheduled to retire at that time, the Lakers' salary cap would not be a problem should they acquire Sampson.

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