Imagine the trick played on the Houston Rockets Friday night. The team comes in believing it's the heir apparent to the Lakers in the Western Conference, then finds out it's been written out of the will.
In what was not a classic game, but a classic blowout instead, the Lakers crushed the Rockets, 130-107, in front of a stunned crowd of 16,016 at the Summit.
The Lakers notified the Rockets in no uncertain terms that they aren't ready to roll over just yet.
"We had a little bit to prove," Byron Scott said. "They were thinking they could beat us, but now this may change their minds a little."
The Rockets lasted exactly one quarter before they got put through the wringer. They missed 19 free throws, committed 17 turnovers in a confused offensive display, and played the type of defense that led to an embarrassing number of easy Laker layups.
"We took a big step backward," Rocket Coach Bill Fitch said.
For the Lakers, it was a another routine victory, their ninth in succession, keeping them undefeated for March and also unbeaten in their last 13 games in the Summit.
"I was kind of scared they were going to throw (Laker assistant coach) Dave Wohl in there to kick our tails, too," Rocket point guard John Lucas said. "They showed us we've still got a lot of work to do."
The Lakers were doing some serious high-kicks, mostly in the second half on the fast break when they literally ran away with it.
A seven-point Laker halftime lead grew to 16 after three quarters and then to 26 points with 4:26 left in the game on Michael Cooper's layup when he and Larry Spriggs teased the Rockets by playing patty-cake with the ball.
Laker rebounders also dominated, 56-46, and limited Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson to 13-for-38 shooting.
Since the Lakers won the season series with Houston, 4-1, the Rockets had better set their sights a little lower than replacing the Lakers. Something like staying ahead of Dallas would be better, because if the Rockets don't do that, they will be seeded in the same bracket with the Lakers.
"I think we fractured them," Laker Coach Pat Riley said. "Obviously, with the score, we put a tattoo on them."
It was an oddball kind of game, really. How often do you see a team shoot better from the field (44.3%) than from the free-throw line (38.7%)?
Fitch, who hopes he never sees it again, said the Rocket defeat was a total team effort: "Nobody did it at both ends."
The Lakers were doing it everywhere at all times in the second half, right after Riley noticed that the Twin Towers seemed a little gassed.
Riley thought that Olajuwon and Sampson were both a little tired, so he wanted the Rockets to get caught up in a running game that would keep the Towers in the middle of the floor instead of beneath the baskets.
Apart from four blocked shots, Olajuwon was not a factor. He shot 5 for 15 and finished with six rebounds. Sampson had 20 points with 10 rebounds, but he also committed five turnovers and missed 7 of 11 free-throw attempts.
Johnson said the Lakers took advantage of that.
"They just kept missing, and we just kept runnin'," he said.
Abdul-Jabbar made 13 of 17 shots, blocked 2, had 8 rebounds, 6 assists and dominated his position.
Lionel Hollins kept the Rockets in the game early with 10 first-half points, and Lucas saved them from total embarrassment with 15 points in 16 second-half minutes. But the Lakers also got 18 points in 22 minutes from Bob McAdoo, plus 13 points in 11 minutes from Mike McGee to at least make it semi-embarrassing for the Rockets.
"We didn't play defense, we didn't play offense and we didn't shoot free throws," Hollins said.
The free-throw shooting was something else. Robert Reid said he knew what went wrong.
"There was a little man standing on the rim knocking the ball away," he said.
The Lakers didn't need any help. They clearly had a great time thumping the Rockets. Not even 25 turnovers, eight of which were committed by Johnson, dulled their achievement.
"All we wanted to do was continue to win, which we did," Johnson said. "We still think we have the best team in the West, and down the line we'll see them again in the playoffs."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar needs three more field-goal attempts to replace Elvin Hayes, who had 24,272, as the NBA's all-time leader. That record will come Sunday night in the Forum against the Pistons. . . . The Lakers (51-18) are one-half game ahead of Philadelphia (51-19) in the race for the best record and a possible home-court advantage in the playoffs. . . . The Lakers are 25-4 since Jan. 16. . . . Houston is just one game ahead of Dallas for the third seed in the conference playoffs. The fourth and fifth seeds will be in the Lakers' bracket along with the No. 8 seed.