Four seconds had elapsed, and the Lakers already had displayed their dominance over the Charlotte Hornets Monday night. Losers of 22 of their previous 24 games, and playing without injured Rex Chapman and Dell Curry, the Hornets figured to be out of contention even with the Lakers leading, 2-0, with 47 minutes 56 seconds to play.
But the Lakers, winners of 16 of their previous 18, would soon discover that there are no sure things, even when the team with the NBA's best record plays the one with the worst.
Trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half, and still behind by four points with eight minutes to play, the Lakers escaped with a 107-102 victory before 23,901 at the Charlotte Coliseum.
"We got the win, which is what we wanted," Laker Coach Pat Riley said. "We had to work for it, but it wasn't because we weren't ready. I thought we played as hard as we could. Charlotte just played great."
Not concerned with appearances this time, the Lakers said they were quite pleased merely to win Monday. The Lakers (47-14) needed another victory to remain percentage points ahead of the Detroit Pistons for the league's best record and extend their Pacific Division lead over Portland to four games.
"I tell you," Johnson said, "they played real well. I don't know if any other team could have beaten them tonight."
As in their 10-point loss to the Pistons on Sunday night, the Hornets folded in the fourth quarter under defensive pressure. Detroit held Charlotte scoreless for the final 5:58; the Lakers held the Hornets to only one field goal in the first 10:03 of the fourth quarter. During that span, the Lakers built a 99-93 lead thanks to their defense.
The Lakers took their first lead since the early going with 4:01 left on two free throws by Orlando Woolridge. Woolridge then stole the ball from Armon Gilliam and passed to Johnson, who passed to Thompson for an inside basket and a 97-93 Laker lead.
After a Hornet timeout, Johnson stripped the ball from Randolph Keys and passed to Scott for a layup and a 99-93 lead.
Mugsy Bogues finally broke Charlotte's scoring drought by making a layup with 1:57 to play, but Johnson made a drive in traffic with 1:01 to play for a 101-95 lead and the Hornets never really threatened despite Robert Reid's desperation three-point basket.
The Lakers said their comeback was a far greater accomplishment than Sunday's eight-point victory over the Atlanta Hawks. A loss to the Hornets would have been a major blow to their record--and their egos.
James Worthy, who led the Lakers with 26 points, said that sometimes playing the weaker teams is more difficult.
"Teams like this or Orlando or Minnesota, you have to play even harder," Worthy said. "The only thing a team of this caliber has going for it is a tremendous effort. A team like this is dangerous. They took Detroit to the wire (Sunday) We had to play better than against Atlanta to win."
The Lakers made 52% of their shots, held a 42-37 rebounding advantage and limited Charlotte, which shot 73.7% in the second quarter, to five field goals in the fourth quarter.
"This is the type of game that lets us know that we have to come prepared every night," Woolridge said. "We didn't play defense really well the whole game. But we played good when we had to."
As usually is the case, Johnson made most of the big plays for the Lakers in the final minutes. He had assists on three of the Lakers' last four baskets in the final 4:44, scoring the other himself. He also had steals on consecutive Hornet possessions.
It was a strong ending to an otherwise mediocre night, by Johnson's standards. He made only four of 10 shots, committed four turnovers and had problems guarding the 5-foot-3 Bogues, who had 21 points. But Johnson finished only a rebound shy of another triple-double. He had 19 points, 15 assists and nine rebounds.
"You can't perform the same Magic show every night, but he's still out there with his teammates, creating a lot of things other players don't," Worthy said. "You got to realize (Johnson) always attracts a lot of attention."
Riley said Johnson often tries to shoulder too much of the burden when the Lakers struggle.
"He begins to feel the pressure," Riley said. "But when it counted, he came up with the defensive and offensive plays. The whole thing at the end was just typical Earvin Johnson."
Said Johnson: "You get frustrated because you see easy shots--layups--that should go in, but go out. That happened to us a lot tonight. It wasn't like we were playing bad. And we did come back to win. As long as we stay within striking distance, I feel good, I feel like we can win."
Byron Scott played on consecutive nights for the first time since suffering reinjury of his left hamstring. He said he felt no pain. Scott also played with a hip pointer suffered during Sunday's victory over the Atlanta Hawks. Scott had 12 points Monday night. . . . Hornet guard Rex Chapman, originally thought to have a strained right calf, has a broken right leg and will be sidelined the rest of the season. . . . Dell Curry, another Hornet guard, missed the game because of a sprained left ankle and tendinitis.