The Lakers played their 54th regular-season game Sunday night and, by Michael Cooper's unofficial count, it was maybe the sixth time that Coach Pat Riley proclaimed it the most crucial, vital and altogether significant game of the season.
"Riley gets that way," Phoenix Suns Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said, laughing at the suggestion. "I'm sure you'll hear that again from him."
Only this time, Riley swore he meant it. With their motivation clearly defined once again, the Lakers responded to Riley's latest proclamation by handing the Suns a 134-122 loss before a Forum crowd of 17,505.
So, what differentiated this from the numerous other blowout victories the Lakers have amassed at the Forum?
For one thing, a Laker loss would have sliced their Pacific Division lead over second-place Phoenix to a half-game. But now that the Suns have temporarily been repelled, the Laker lead rests at 2 1/2 games going into Wednesday night's game against the fourth-place Golden State Warriors. Riley stopped short of calling that game the Lakers' latest biggest-game-of-the-season.
"To me, they all are," Riley said. "And I think they (Laker players) know that, just as they know every game against Golden State and Seattle are big games."
Magic Johnson, who put his hands to his face to suppress his laughter when asked if Riley terms every game as the biggest, certainly responded as if it were.
Johnson, in his second game back from a partially torn left hamstring injury, scored 25 points and had 19 assists. So, too, did Byron Scott (29 points), James Worthy (25) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (17).
But the most noticeable example of the Lakers' increased intensity was in their defensive play. In building a 16-point first-half lead from which Phoenix never really recovered, Johnson and Michael Cooper "held" point guard Kevin Johnson to 12 points and nine assists and limited his penetration.
Although Johnson finished with 30 points and 21 assists, the Lakers had enough of a cushion to absorb the Suns' offensive resurgence.
So, at least temporarily, the Lakers repelled their most serious threat this season and put the Suns in their place, which is directly behind them in the Pacific Division. When threatened, though, the Lakers often strike back rather than recoil, and Sunday was no exception.
It was a decisive and impressive victory, administered with the same dominance and ease as the Suns beat the Lakers in Phoenix twice since January. But at the Forum, where they now have lost 16 straight games, the Suns were typically meek.
The Lakers asserted themselves early with an opening 17-4 run, led by as many as 22 points and had a comfortable lead until Riley cleared the bench in the final minutes.
Despite another blowout loss at the Forum, the Suns have been upwardly mobile. In spatial terms, they have come light years from last season, but they still have not been able to master the Lakers at the Forum.
"I don't care what they did to us over there (in Phoenix), they know the Lakers are the team that they have to beat in the West," Johnson said. "We did a good job from start to finish. Making statements and things is a thing of the past."
The Lakers (37-17) didn't need to proclaim anything. Their impressive play spoke for itself and certainly made an impression on the Suns, who had won seven of their previous eight games. It was defense, more than anything, that propelled the Lakers into an early lead they never relinquished. Having been hurt in the two losses in Phoenix by Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers and Eddie Johnson, the Lakers' plan was to limit Kevin's penetration and double-team Chambers.
Eddie Johnson was not a problem on this night. He missed his third straight game with a bruised calf muscle. Considering that he scored 32 points off the bench the last time the teams met, his loss was significant.
"The real Lakers showed up tonight, the Lakers I remember," Fitzsimmons said. "We were hurt because we didn't have Eddie, but they didn't have Byron Scott the last time we played them. Those type of players make a difference."
The Lakers' first-strike capability was impressively displayed in the first 3 1/2 minutes, sprinting to a 17-4 lead from which the Suns could not recover in the first half.
If their plan was to establish home-court dominance early over the Suns in this showdown, the Lakers certainly accomplished it, taking a 75-59 halftime lead while shooting 65%.
The Laker lead was 17-4 seemingly before the Suns knew what hit them and Fitzsimmons finally called timeout. Phoenix would eventually cut the Laker lead to nine points midway through the first quarter and seven midway through the second, but the Lakers were never seriously threatened.
"We had a great, great offensive game," Riley said. "We were running, the 'D' was there."
Almost all facets of the Laker game were evident in the initial run. Worthy scored inside, Johnson completed a fastbreak layup and added a three-point play, Green converted an offensive rebound and Abdul-Jabbar sank a sky hook. Scott, averaging 28 points in his last five games, was the only scoreless Laker starter during the run, but he would be heard from later in the half. Consecutive jump shots by Scott returned the Laker lead to 13 late in the first quarter after the Suns had cut it to nine. And, late in the second quarter, Scott scored seven points in one minute, including sinking a three-point shot, to retain a comfortable advantage.
Despite their chronic road problems, and despite the Lakers impressive first-half efforts, the Suns still could not be considered out of it at halftime.
That's because the diminutive Johnson, who broke the Suns' single-season assist mark (632) and the club's single-game mark (21) Sunday night, seemingly cannot be contained for an entire game, though Cooper tried his best. "We contained him until the second half, but then he got it going," Riley said. "I think we understand how they play now. We know how to approach it."
The Suns admittedly did not know how to defend the Lakers. Even though the Suns made 17 of 19 shots in the third quarter, they were only able to trim two points off the Laker lead.
"The Lakers can do that to you," Fitzsimmons said. "Give them credit. They came out smoking from the start and sent a message to us. It would have been nice to beat the Lakers here, but we can't go hanging our heads about it. We still have 29 games to play."
The Lakers, too, have a many games to play, but Riley stuck by his proclamation that Sunday's was the most important.
"Maybe it was the most important to date ," Johnson said. "I'll say that."
Laker guard Byron Scott made all three three-point shots he attempted Sunday night. In his last two games, Scott has made 7 of 8 three-point attempts. . . . The Lakers out-rebounded the Suns, 44-28. Phoenix had only four offensive rebounds to 15 for the Lakers. The 28-rebound effort was a season-low for the Suns. . . . Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 7-of-10 field-goal shooting was his best performance since posting identical shooting statistics in Phoenix on Feb. 1. "I shot the ball well, and I played defense tonight," Abdul-Jabbar said. "You try to put a couple of games together. Consistency, that's what I'm working towards." . . . A.C. Green's 15 points and 11 rebounds marked his 16th double-double of the season and his fourth in the last five games. . . . Magic Johnson on the condition of his left hamstring after his second game back: "I got to do my thing more tonight, twisting and twirling. Now, it's just a matter of getting in better shape and getting back to the minutes I was playing."