Does Magic Johnson have a split personality? He must, because he said so.
"I've got three different faces," he said. "I've got the usual happy-go-lucky face, then I have to put on this mad dog look on defense, and then there's this face on the fast break when my eyes get real big."
The way he has been playing lately, Johnson is a face for all seasons . . . basketball seasons. He turned all three of his game faces loose on the Chicago Bulls Tuesday night in a 127-117 Laker victory.
"This is all business," Johnson said. "I'm just trying to do what I normally do."
The Lakers also played what has become their normal game of late. They won their eighth in a row and opened a four-game trip through the Eastern Conference with the kind of offensive performance that has Coach Pat Riley thinking big.
"It's past the middle of the season, we've got a 12-game lead in our division, so what's the challenge?" Riley asked. "The challenge is to keep the streak going."
While it may not be realistic, Riley said the Lakers (39-16) are also shooting for the best record in the NBA. They trail Boston (44-11) and Philadelphia (42-12).
Yet if they keep shooting like they did against the Bulls, then the Lakers have a chance for something even better, according to one critic.
"I'll tell you, if they play like that the rest of the way, they won't have any trouble winning the NBA championship," the Bulls' Michael Jordan said.
The Lakers, who made 65% of their field-goal attempts, got 27 points from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 22 points and 3 three-pointers from Byron Scott and 20 points plus 11 assists from Johnson even though he was limited to 31 minutes because of foul trouble.
Johnson got the Lakers off early with 14 first-quarter points, but he had to sit down five minutes into the third quarter after he picked up his fourth foul.
Chicago lost its third straight game even though Orlando Woolridge bulled for 30 points and Quintin Dailey came jump-shooting off the bench for 26 more. Jordan, however, was nowhere to be seen.
He finished with 16 points, but only two of them came in the second half. Jordan averages 26.7, but like Johnson, he also found himself in foul trouble.
Unlike Johnson, though, he couldn't face it.
"I got tentative at both ends," Jordan said. "I never was able to get in the flow."
For a while, the Bulls flowed nicely without him. Chicago put on a nice run to end the third quarter down by only 104-96 when the Lakers scored just four points in the last 3:37 of the period to blow a 15-point lead.
"I thought we were in pretty good shape then," Jordan said. "The Lakers shot over 80% in the third quarter and we still picked up two points on them."
Actually, the Lakers shot 85.7% in the third quarter. And although that's not too shabby, the Bulls eventually managed to tie, 112-112, with 5:54 to play in the game.
Dailey had eight points in the fourth quarter, all of them on difficult shots. But Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar were even better.
Over the final 8 minutes 26 seconds, Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar accounted for the last 19 Laker points.
Michael Cooper, who finished with 19 points, broke the tie with a layup on an assist from Johnson. Abdul-Jabbar's hook gave the Lakers a four-point lead.
David Greenwood sank one free throw, but Abdul-Jabbar countered that with one of his own. Then on consecutive Bulls' possessions, Abdul-Jabbar blocked first Dailey, then Jordan.
"They've got guys who like to come right at you in the middle," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I just wanted to be there."
Quickly, Abdul-Jabbar was somewhere else. At the offensive end, Abdul-Jabbar made another hook shot.
But Dailey rebounded his own missed shot and assisted Greenwood on a dunk that cut the Laker lead to 119-115 with 1:46 left.
After that, it looked easy. Johnson fed Worthy on a back-door layup, then after a turnover by Greenwood, Johnson produced the play of the game.
Driving the lane from a left-side angle, Johnson found Woolridge in his way to prevent a right-handed layup. So Johnson switched the ball to his left hand in midair and banked a shot off the glass.
That made it 123-115 with a minute left, but Johnson wasn't through. He assisted Worthy on a layup and then gave the ball to Cooper on another.
Johnson said his trio of game faces is a relatively new discovery.
"Now, it's hard hat time," he said. "I've been challenged by players lately. Dennis Johnson and now Wes Matthews. I thought, 'OK, let's go. Come on.' For us to win it all, I have to be more aggressive."
Johnson looked the part, whatever face he chose. Riley said he has his own favorite.
"I like his money face," Riley said. "When the game is on the line. He can be so aggressive. The scent of victory is there and he can sure smell it."
After an off-day today, the Lakers play Kansas City at Thursday night and at Indianapolis Friday night. . . . Michael Cooper made all nine shots he attempted.