As much as the Lakers might profess to be a different team starting a new era with a different style, they still will not hesitate to simply hand the ball to Magic Johnson during the final minutes of a close game.
Good habits can be hard to break, too.
Friday night, in their season opener of the post-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar era, the Lakers saw their 19-point lead against the Dallas Mavericks swiftly reduced to six points with 3:26 to play before Johnson took over. He scored six of the Lakers' last 10 points, assisted on one other basket and dribbled out the final 10 seconds to secure the Lakers' 102-94 victory before 17,007 at Reunion Arena.
Just as Coach Pat Riley will stick with the basic colors in his vast wardrobe, these purportedly new-look Lakers didn't force a running game or spread out the half-court offense. Instead, they went to straight to Johnson, with James Worthy added as an accessory, when it mattered most.
"We're changing a lot in the offense; we know that," Johnson said. "But you don't want to lose what wins for you at the end. You got to make sure and execute. I want the ball then. Hopefully, as long as I'm here, that won't change."
The only time Johnson was a spectator near the end of Friday's game was on A.C. Green's basket off a missed shot. Other than that, Johnson was the offense. He sank one of his self-titled "Junior, Junior sky hooks" at 3:14, swished a jump shot with 2:33 left and added two free throws with 42 seconds to play. He also assisted on Worthy's dunk with two minutes left.
All that was missing from Johnson finishes of previous seasons was the sight of Abdul-Jabbar in the low post. But Johnson, in all candor, said Abdul-Jabbar was not missed.
"I didn't even think about him on the court," Johnson said. "I can't be worried about that. The team is depending on me."
Now, more than ever. Johnson played 43 of the 48 minutes, every position except center. He scored 20 points, had 12 assists and nine rebounds. He also spent the night guarding Roy Tarpley, the Mavericks' 7-foot forward, who had 23 points and 17 rebounds but had to work for everything he got.
"I was tired, especially from moving back and forth between guard and forward," Johnson said. "That wears on you. The monkey can really get on your back. But I wasn't tired for those last four minutes. James wasn't either."
Worthy recovered from an abysmal first half, when he made only one of seven from the floor, to score 20 of his 22 points in the second half. Though he made only nine of 21 shots, Worthy scored seven of the Lakers' first 12 points in the fourth quarter.
Before Johnson and Worthy took control, the Lakers did emphasize the running game and more involvement for all players in the half-court offense. It resulted in major contributions by Green, who had 18 points and 14 rebounds, and new starting center Mychal Thompson, who scored 14 of his 18 points in the first half.
"We're doing different things, and it's going to take 15 to 20 games to really get down what we're doing and make it instinctive," Riley said. "But tonight, we played to our instincts. When it got close, we went close to the vest, put the ball in Earvin's hands and let him (score) it or find James open."
The blueprints for this new Laker style were not shredded. But they had to be altered against the Mavericks, the Western Conference's tallest team with two 7-footers in the starting lineup (Tarpley and James Donaldson) and height coming off the bench (Sam Perkins and Herb Williams).
On this night, at least, the Lakers were adaptable. They outrebounded the Mavericks, 50-47, overpowering them inside while still managing to occasionally outrun them.
"Any time you have A.C. on your team and Magic, the best rebounding guard in the league, we should have an advantage on the boards," Thompson said. "The rest of us just have to do our part and help out."
Help came from various sources. Thompson had only four rebounds but leaned on the bulky Donaldson, limiting the Maverick center to four points. Yugoslav center Vlade Divac had eight rebounds in 15 minutes, offset somewhat by three traveling violations on offense. And guard Byron Scott was held to 11 points, but made perhaps the most important defensive play in the final three minutes.
The Lakers led, 94-88, but Johnson's lob pass to Worthy was intercepted. The Mavericks began a fast break, but Scott stood his ground in front of Rolando Blackman near the basket and drew a charging foul with 2:45 left.
Thirteen seconds later, Johnson sank a medium-range jump shot, and the Laker lead never dipped below six from there.
"It's tough to come back on them," Dallas guard Derek Harper said. "We made a run, but it wasn't enough. It's hard to come back from an 18-point deficit, and that's what we got caught trying to do."
The Lakers' biggest lead actually was 19 points, 80-61, late in the third quarter. They led by 14 after the first quarter, by as many as 16 in the second but were continually fighting off Maverick runs.
As a result, the Lakers also had to battle fatigue. It had been 11 days since they had last played and, with the emphasis on running, Riley said he knew his players would tire.
That came early in the fourth quarter, when Dallas had a 12-2 run to pull within six. But the Lakers, in Riley's words, played through the fatigue and won it.
"We're going to have to improve on our running and cutting and not getting tired," Riley said. "But our defense won it for us. It was our defense and reverting back to what we do in close games. I was concerned coming down here after 11 days off, but they dug it out."
Credit a balanced effort throughout, but especially Johnson's friendly takeover in the final three minutes.
"Right now, we're going through a lot of new things, and I don't think we've really clicked," Johnson said. "But in the fourth quarter, you got to take the game in your own hands. A six-point lead can go fast, but I wasn't going to let it get away."
The Lakers' search for another "big body," as Coach Pat Riley terms it, may lead to journeyman 7-footer Jawann Oldham. Oldham, waived by Sacramento Thursday, is a good shot-blocker and physical player, but he missed all of last season after major knee surgery. The Lakers tried to acquire Oldham from Chicago before the 1986-87 season, but instead traded for Frank Brickowski. If the Lakers sign Oldham, who will earn $350,000 for each of the next three seasons, they would have to wait until he clears waivers. The Lakers could only spend the league minimum of $110,000 to acquire a player.