The Lakers muddled past another beast from the bottom of the division Monday night and ended a phase, the one in which the coach smiles and says, "Hey, whatever, it's all right."
The new phase will be No More Mr. Nice Guy.
Shortly after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had finished raining sky-hooks on the Golden State Warriors, scoring seven straight points to break a 112-112 tie and leading the Lakers to a 127-117 victory, Coach Pat Riley pulled the gauntlet out of his pocket, where he'd been keeping it for weeks, and dropped it at his players' feet.
"It's time to start driving for the playoffs," Riley announced. "There are 20 games left, five weeks.
"Last year we finished 36-6, a 42-game drive. We had a purpose. We'd gotten beat in the seventh game of the finals the year before. Our purpose was born of anger. It was born of frustration.
"We have to kick ourselves to get to that level again. Our purpose is to repeat. Our players can't be satiated because they won the championship the year before.
"We've only had two constructive practices in the last month, because of traveling and all that. But you have to travel and practice. That's what our job is. You can't wait for the playoffs to start. If you wait for the playoffs to come up to you, you might not be ready for the first round.
"Injuries have been a factor. We wouldn't have had as much trouble without our flurry of injuries the last five weeks. But we've still got to kick ourselves into high gear."
The Lakers won 31 of their first 37 games and people were calling them the greatest team ever. Since then, they're 13-10.
Riley was said to be distressed by the slide, but bit his tongue, feeling it's a long season.
"I'm taking the responsibility for that," Riley said. "I have been less demanding. I realize the challenge we're getting every night. Every game is the opponent's Armageddon. That takes a toll.
"I backed away from demanding time, practice time, time for film sessions. But now that's going to change. We're going to punch the clock."
Aside from that, he didn't have much to say on the subject.
The Lakers started the night with Maurice Lucas out with a bruised elbow, James Worthy trying a comeback from his bruised groin but lasting only 13 minutes, and Mitch Kupchak re-spraining his left knee.
Abdul-Jabbar, who'd sat out the game before with a sore shoulder, after which his teammates had been mopped up by the 23-35 Phoenix Suns, got into foul trouble early. Riley had assigned him to forward Larry Smith, a rebounder who rarely shoots, but Abdul-Jabbar found three other players to foul in the first period and took a seat to watch the rest of the half.
Were the Lakers out of heroes? Up stepped Kurt Rambis, of all people. Riley had put him, all 6-8 of him, on the Warriors' 7-foot Joe Barry Carroll.
Rambis wound up with 16 points and 16 rebounds. Carroll had nine points and seven rebounds. If NBA contracts were renegotiated on a nightly basis, Rambis' would have been worth $500,000 Monday night.
However, if you want to approach it that way, there were still too many horrors for the coach of a would-be repeat champion. The Laker defense allowed the Warriors to make nine of their first 14 shots. The Warriors led by 10 points early in the second period, then wiped out a 12-point Laker lead in the fourth.
When Greg Ballard stole Rambis' in-bounds pass and knocked in a 20-footer, the game was tied, 108-108, with 6:06 left.
It was tied again at 110 and 112. With 4:46 left, Abdul-Jabbar tossed in an eight-foot hook over Jerome Whitehead on the right baseline. At the other end, Purvis Short, the high Warrior with 31, missed a 15-footer under pressure. Back at the Laker end, Abdul-Jabbar went to the other side of the lane and hit a longer hook over Whitehead.
The Lakers scored five more points, of which Abdul-Jabbar had three. After that, it was time for Riley's speech.
"Jerome is 6-10," Warrior Coach John Bach said later. "You're giving away height. We raced in to double-team. . . . The guy (Abdul-Jabbar) keeps hitting the key shot. It seems like he's been doing that for a century. Hey, he's done to a lot of teams what he did to us."
That's how the Warriors dropped to 19-44. Riley, hoping to get that done without waiting up half the night, was working on alternative modes of destruction.
So much for Laker management's hope to sell out the rest of the season. The crowd was 16,045, the smallest in six weeks.