Mere percentage points separate the Lakers and Detroit Pistons for the NBA's best record. Whichever team finishes on top earns home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, which is Pat Riley's obsession during the regular season.
Even though the Pistons have won 21 of their last 22 games, the Lakers have remained in front. Even though Portland, Utah and Phoenix have posed threats in the Western Conference, the Lakers have hardly wavered in their resolve.
Sunday's 123-115 Laker victory over the Atlanta Hawks was another example of their unwillingness to fold.
Beginning a five-game trip against Atlanta, the Lakers overcame an early 13-point deficit and repelled several Hawk comeback attempts behind Magic Johnson's 32 points and 14 assists and James Worthy's 30 points.
Had the Lakers lost Sunday, they would have released their hold on the NBA's best record for the first time since November. Instead, the Pistons (47-15, a 75.8% winning percentage) remain behind the Lakers (46-14, 76.7%).
"It's peer pressure," Laker center Mychal Thompson said. "That's what's keeping us playing as hard and as well as we are. We can't afford to take a few days off and relax. Detroit, Utah, Portland, Phoenix--we're feeling all of their cold breath down our necks."
It was about this time last season that the Lakers fell behind the Pistons in what has become an annual quest for home-court advantage.
So far this season, the Lakers have not plunged into a prolonged stretch of poor play. They have not lost three consecutive games all season and have lost only two in a row on two occasions.
The Lakers have won 10 of their last 12 games going into tonight's game at Charlotte.
"I think we've been the most consistent team in the league this season," Riley said. "After we won nine in a row early, we haven't had the big winning streaks. But we keep winning, like, five of six or eight of 10. We never get into (a slump).
"This is the way it has to be. Our guys know what's out there, and they have to take the attitude that they have to hold off those other teams. We've got 22 games left and we've got to make a stand."
Riley said that, with the way the Pistons are playing, the Lakers can no longer afford to win at about a 75% clip, which they have all season.
"You're aware of those other teams, and you watch them," said Laker guard Byron Scott, who had 12 points in 31 minutes in his first game back in almost a week from a left hamstring strain. "Now, we know we got to come out every night playing like we did today. As long as we take care of ourselves, we'll be all right."
The Lakers were more than all right Sunday. Atlanta (29-32) always has given them problems because of its three 7-footers, but the Lakers held a 44-36 rebounding advantage and limited the Hawks to few second shots.
Trailing by as many as 13 points midway through the second quarter, the Lakers rallied to cut the Hawks' lead to 62-58 at halftime. The Lakers took control thereafter, building a series of seven-point leads at several stages of the second half and keeping Atlanta from pulling closer than three points.
The Lakers did it, as they usually do, with strong defensive play and accurate outside shooting.
Johnson made 10 of 19 shots, including three of five from three-point territory. Scott showed little rustiness after missing three games, making five of eight shots. And Worthy, working mostly inside, made 14 of 20 shots while limiting Dominique Wilkins to 22 points.
"I think you can see why the Lakers are truly a great team," Atlanta Coach Mike Fratello said. "They find a way to win games. It's not easy to be on top and continue to play the way they do with everybody gunning for you."
The Lakers, by now, are used to it.
"We've got 22 to go," Johnson said. "We've got to keep pushing it. (Consistency) has been the key to our season. You don't go this long without being consistent."
Byron Scott said his left hamstring felt fine, but he suffered a bruised left hip during Sunday's game. "Somebody came in for a layup and an elbow came out of somewhere and got me on the hip," Scott said. "It's sore." . . . Orlando Woolridge scored 10 points despite playing with a sprained left ankle. "It affected me more mentally than physically," Woolridge said. "I knew it was there, and I hesitated making some of my usual moves."
Laker Coach Pat Riley gave an endorsement for beleaguered Atlanta Coach Mike Fratello. "The last thing (the Hawks) should do is get rid of (Fratello)," Riley said. "That would be the biggest mistake this franchise ever made. He is the best coach for this team. The players know that. There comes a point where the players have to be responsible."