The Lakers, it could be argued, needed a game such as this, one in which victory could be obtained with minimum stress but at maximum efficiency.
Designated victims Friday night at the Forum turned out to be the Indiana Pacers, who were never rude enough to interrupt a Laker onslaught that resulted in a 139-117 victory before 17,505.
So, with four home-game victories by an average of nearly 17 points since Magic Johnson’s return, the Lakers return to the road, where they are a mere 14-14. When last seen outside the Forum on Feb. 22, the Lakers totaled 79 points in a loss to Utah.
But they begin this trip with their Pacific Division lead increased to 3 1/2 games over the second-place Phoenix Suns. So Laker minds have started thinking beyond the divisional race to the battle for the league’s best record and, thus, home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Friday night’s victory over Indiana, coupled with Cleveland’s loss at Detroit, moved the Lakers (39-17) just four games behind the league-leading Cavaliers (43-13) with about six weeks to play.
A successful trip, which begins Sunday against the Houston Rockets in a nationally televised game, is essential if the Lakers hope to catch Cleveland.
“If we’re looking to try to catch Cleveland and Detroit (38-16), we’ve got to start now,” Riley said. “That is part of the purpose of this trip, to try to get into that position. In these last games, I think we’ve got a legitimate shot to do it. We’re only four games back now.”
Riley, who talked about shooting for the best record at Friday morning’s shoot-around, is always searching for motivational devices. But this one is a tangible tool the Lakers have used to win the championship the last two seasons.
“Without it,” James Worthy said, “the last two titles would have been really tough to win. We still have a lot of games to play, and anything can happen. We’re still in that race, and we’re all aware who’s in front of us.”
Less than a week ago, the Lakers had to fight off a divisional challenge by the Suns, who could have pulled to within a half-game of the Lakers had they won.
Their dominance was evident again Friday night against a Pacer team that was coming off four consecutive victories since completing two major trades. But the Pacers looked tired after beating Golden State in overtime Thursday night, and the Lakers were fueled by Riley’s talk of a new goal.
A 19-6 Laker lead in the first 5 1/2 minutes pretty much dictated the Pacers’ fate. The Lakers extended the advantage to 15 points at halftime and 31 points late in the third quarter, before the reserves finished it out.
A.C. Green scored 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Worthy had 18 points and a career-high 10 assists. And Johnson came within two rebounds of a triple-double by logging 20 points, 16 assists and eight rebounds.
Indiana shot just 25% in the first quarter and did not make a dent in the Laker lead despite shooting 67% in the second quarter. The Pacers received 26 points from Chuck Person and 21 from LaSalle Thompson.
But Indiana committed 20 turnovers, was outrebounded, 45-41, and had prolonged lapses in transition defense that resulted in seven Laker fast-break baskets in the third quarter alone.
“Our defense, the last couple of games has been (impressive),” Riley said. “I mean, we’ve had runs where we just have incredible energy. They are doing what they have to do to get a lot of offense off our defensive play.
“If we go on the road and play with that kind of energy, that kind of intensity--on defense, rebounding and maximum effort--we’ll have a successful trip. The guys’ attitudes are great right now. They are committed. This trip can make the story, but I’m confident. For once, I don’t have any complaints.”
No, only challenges.
But Lakers players, who would rather spend less time on the road should they advance once again to the championship series, appear determined to take a stab at catching the Cavaliers.
“We got a shot at it now,” said Johnson, whose personal highlight Friday night came when he changed hands on the ball while airborne and swished a jump shot. “That’s what we’re thinking about right now, closing out strong. You have to play for April now.”
Johnson, however, was cautious about not losing sight of the divisional race while embarking on this quest for the league’s best. Still, even he seems ready to put the Suns behind and shoot for bigger game.
“We’re going for it,” he said. “We just got to make our own way, not worry about the other guys. Cleveland, Detroit, Phoenix, Seattle, Utah--they got to worry about themselves. If we just play like we’re capable of playing, everything will fall into place.”
A lot of shots have fallen for the Lakers recently. They have 281 points the last two games, and they made 57.1% of their shots Friday night.
All of those things will have to continue if the Lakers hope to excel on the road, where they will meet Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Charlotte and Golden State.
“Sometimes, on the road,” Riley said, “you got to play harder than you do at home just to win close games--not blowouts like these. I think the guys realized that. We did that on our last Southern trip (victories over Dallas and Houston in late January), played with more effort defensive and rebounding and we won.”
The trip will be the Lakers’ last games outside of the Western Conference. When they return to Los Angeles on March 13, they will have only eight road games remaining. So, the significance of winning at least three of the next five games was not lost on the Laker players.
“I think we’re experienced enough to know that you just can’t pick it up when the playoffs start,” Worthy said. “We want to be primed and ready, and this is the time to prepare for it.”
Indiana rookie center Rik Smits, a native of the Netherlands, scored two points and had one rebound in 15 minutes against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had 11 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes. Pacer Coach Dick Versace said it was painful to watch Smits play against Abdul-Jabbar. “Obviously, our center was awed by Kareem’s presence,” Versace said. “He read all those American magazines about the guy (Abdul-Jabbar) and it had to be tough to go against a (legend) like that. (Smits) was being beaten down the floor by a 42-year-old man--a very impressive 42-year-old, but still. . . .”
In his last four games, A.C. Green has averaged 17.5 points and 12.2 rebounds. Magic Johnson, meanwhile, has averaged 22 points, 7.2 rebounds and 12.8 assists while playing fewer than 30 minutes in his four games back from a partially torn left hamstring.