When they talk about turning points this season, the Los Angeles Lakers generally look back to March 12 and a game at the Forum won by the Chicago Bulls. It was the Lakers' fourth defeat in five games and rookie Coach Pat Riley didn't like it.
To that point, the Lakers had been one of the top four teams in the National Basketball Association and were still 42-21. But after that six-point loss to the Bulls, the Lakers went from a good team to a great one, they believe.
"I'd had enough after that Chicago game," Riley said yesterday, a day after his Lakers swept the San Antonio Spurs, 4-0, in the Western Conference final playoff series with a 128-123 victory at HemisFair Arena.
"We had what I call an attitude adjustment meeting," said Riley, who replaced Paul Westhead as the Laker coach 10 games into the season. "I felt I was too soft. In my desire to let them just play, I had given them too much freedom and it was getting out of hand. No matter how talented this club is, it still needs some direction and somebody pushing them. It was time for me to make them do what I wanted them to do.
"I think the team responded well to me."
The next night the Lakers beat Dallas by 22 points. They have won most of the time since. In their last 27 games, they've won 23, including eight straight in the playoffs against Phoenix and San Antonio.
"That's a great basketball team," Stan Albeck, San Antonio's stunned coach, said.
The Lakers will wait for the winner of the Philadelphia-Boston series in the East. The 76ers lead that series, 3-1, and can win it Wednesday night in Boston.
"I don't care who we play," Riley said. "We're going back to take what is ours. We may match up better with Philadelphia than we do with Boston, but it really doesn't matter."
"The way all of our guys are playing, we're making it hard on everybody we play," guard Norm Nixon said.
In terms of talent, the Lakers are probably superior to any other team in recent years. They basically use seven players, but they are so versatile that it seems like 18.
The starters are Jamaal Wilkes and Kurt Rambis at forward, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center and Magic Johnson and Nixon at guard. The first substitutes called are Bob McAdoo and Michael Cooper.
Only Rambis, a rugged Clark Kent look-alike, is a role player. His job is to rebound. Johnson has played all five positions. Wilkes has played forward and shooting guard. Cooper has played both guard spots and small forward and McAdoo all three front-court spots.
"We're playing as a unit and everyone is looking out for each other," Abdul-Jabbar said. "When you're as unselfish as this team is, you are automatically loose and everyone likes each other. It makes it very difficult for us to be beaten."
That was never more evident than in the San Antonio series.
George Gervin scored 39 points and had 15 rebounds in Game 3, but the Lakers got 26 from Abdul-Jabbar and 22 from both Nixon and McAdoo, and won by 10.
Saturday night, Gervin had 38 and Mike Mitchell 30, but the Lakers got 30 from Nixon, 26 from McAdoo and 22 from both Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar. The Spurs led by nine points with 2:23 left in the third quarter, but then the Lakers scored 10 straight points.
The Lakers play wide-open, fast-break basketball. "We can't get into a rebounding, muscle game," Bill Bertka, an assistant coach, said. "We have to run and we put the fear in people's minds that they better bust their butts to get down court, because we're coming down there in a hurry."
The celebration in San Antonio Saturday was short and sweet.
"It's only one stop on the way," Johnson said.
In a room next to the Laker dressing room, Mitch Kupchak, the forgotten man who has been out the last two-thirds of the season with a broken leg and knee injury, sat all alone.
"I'm not a part of this," he said. "I'd just be in the way in there. But wait until next year."
The rest of the Lakers aren't waiting.
"It's our time now," Johnson said.