After losing for the sixth time in eight games to the Detroit Pistons at home Sunday, the injury-ridden Los Angeles Lakers were being written off by courtside critics, and even began expressing doubts about their playoff chances.
"You get to a point where you're tired of playing hard and losing," said veteran guard Byron Scott, as the Lakers found themselves being pressured for the final Western Conference playoff spot by, of all teams, their cross-town rival, the Clippers.
"There are only three of us left on this team who have won NBA championships: myself, James Worthy and A. C. Green," Scott told the Los Angeles Times. "Maybe for the rest of the guys, winning a title isn't a big deal. But my opinion is that we're a divided team now. A lot of guys aren't doing the little things for us to win. I see us playing a lot of one-on-one, and that's not our style."
Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy was more specific, pointing to his reserves as the principal underachievers. "If we can get one guy off the bench to step forward and give us some consistent minutes, we can make the playoffs," he said.
The criticism acted as adrenalin, and the Lakers, who make their only visit this season to the Capital Centre tonight to play the Washington Bullets, are again showing signs of recovery.
They began a critical five-game eastern swing Tuesday night with a last-second victory over the New York Knicks. Sedale Threatt, who replaced Magic Johnson as Lakers playmaker, scored a career-high 42 points. The following night, the Lakers ripped the Atlanta Hawks, 109-98, with Scott scoring 29.
After losing for the second time to his former team, Knicks coach Pat Riley said, "There have been some dramatic changes on the Lakers, but once they get healthy, they'll be back."
Riley was on the money. With forward Sam Perkins returning from a sore knee and center Vlade Divac back after being sidelined for 44 games following back surgery, Dunleavy has more options at his command.
Still missing is Worthy (strained knee), the team scoring leader, and the most important ingredient -- Johnson, working behind a microphone for NBC.
Johnson, who led the Lakers to five NBA titles, has been forthright in criticizing his former teammates. "Broadcasting is my job now, and I just tell it like it is," said Johnson, who accompanied the team on its trip to New York. "They have to understand: If they turn the ball over, I'm going to say so, and why."
The Lakers have had a difficult time adjusting to life without Johnson, particularly Worthy, Scott, Divac and Green, who capitalized on his matchless passing skills to raise their scoring averages.
But the greatest burden has been on Threatt, who was acquired from the Seattle SuperSonics this season for three second-round picks -- in 1994, 1995 and 1996.
Threatt, who was previously traded by the Philadelphia 76ers and Chicago Bulls, had feared he would be stuck behind Johnson, but Johnson made a personal call during the summer, assuring Threatt that he would be a valuable addition to the Lakers.
Now running the show, Threatt has not tried to emulate Johnson, but has relied on his skills in averaging 14.5 points.
"I'm 30 now," said Threatt. "If I were a young guy in my second or third year in the league, I think I might feel the pressure. But after playing in this league for nine years, and all the experience I've had, you tend to know what's going on."
"I'm just playing my own game. "Magic won five championships, I've won none. Magic is 6 feet 9. I'm 6-2. He can look over the defense, post up and rebound. But I'm a little quicker. Outside of that, there is no way to replace him."
Former Lakers forward Orlando Woolridge said he believes Los Angeles without Johnson plays with little emotion and intensity.
Said Woolridge: "The Lakers right now are still trying to find themselves -- not really knowing who their leaders are. People are being forced to play roles they're not accustomed to. They're in a transitional state, and it will take some time."
But with only 19 games remaining, the Lakers will have to find a new identity in a hurry or possibly miss the playoffs for the first time since 1976.