NEW YORK — On his way out of Madison Square Garden Sunday afternoon, Knicks Coach Hubie Brown stopped briefly in the hallway outside the Laker locker room and extended some premature good wishes to Coach Pat Riley.
"Good luck in the finals," Brown told Riley as they shook hands.
Riley watched Brown walk off, then nodded his head.
"I think we might be there," Riley said. "I really do."
Now that they're 41-17 and hold a fat lead over Phoenix, the rest of the regular season doesn't appear to hold many challenges for the Lakers, who were taken to the limit by the Knicks before outlasting them, 119-114, before 16,287 in the Garden.
If the Lakers do make it to the finals, a goal that many are already conceding them, there are probably going to be several more regular-season games like the one the Lakers played against the Knicks.
The Lakers won one in the last two minutes, they won because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored a ton of points and they won because Magic Johnson got the ball to the right people in the right place at the right time.
And if that's not enough, the Lakers won with a little luck.
Abdul-Jabbar scored 39 points against shorter matchups and Johnson passed off 15 assists in 44 minutes of hard work against a trapping Knick defense that gave the Lakers a lot of trouble.
"We finally got adjusted to it," Johnson said. "Hey, that's just how it goes."
The way it went for the Lakers was for Johnson and James Worthy, who had eight assists, to give the ball to Abdul-Jabbar down the stretch.
Four free throws by Abdul-Jabbar and a breakaway dunk by Worthy erased a three-point Knicks' lead and put the Lakers up, 107-104, with 2:44 left.
When the Knicks continued to use their trap defense, the Lakers scored on their next five possessions and the only one that wasn't a layup was a rare 15-foot jumper by Abdul-Jabbar.
"We finally got adjusted to the press," Johnson said. "We finally attacked it right. We'd dump the ball to Kareem and he'd either shoot it or give to the off-side man for a layup."
Bernard King, who is the Knicks' offense, matched Abdul-Jabbar with 39 points of his own, but the real problem for the Knicks was that they have no one to stack up with Abdul-Jabbar individually.
"It came down to the center position," said the Knicks' Darrell Walker, who had 24 points. "Of course, Kareem is going to score against 6-8 or 6-9 guys."
All Brown had to use against Abdul-Jabbar was 6-8 Ken Bannister and 6-9 James Bailey.
Abdul-Jabbar's slam dunk over Bannister after a press-busting assist from Johnson put the Lakers up, 117-110, with just 24 seconds left.
But the Knicks scored twice in six seconds to get within three.
"We got a little careless and thought the game was over," Riley said.
That's when Laker luck appeared. With nine seconds remaining, the Knicks' Louis Orr got his hands on Byron Scott's soft cross-court pass, but kneed the ball out of bounds.
"I was trying to push it toward the basket instead of picking it up," Orr explained. "I should have picked it up."
Given a reprieve, Scott sank two free throws when he was fouled with one second left to send the Lakers home with a 3-1 record on their trip through the Eastern Conference.
Abdul-Jabbar finished with 16 field goals in 22 attempts and a sincere appreciation of his own worth.
"It's nice when somebody as tall as me is in there," he said. "The guys they had playing me just weren't tall enough. But Ken Bannister did all right.
"He could play for the Giants if he wanted."
The Lakers, who led 62-61 at the half, survived a giant drought at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. For 6:47, they did not score a field goal, but fell behind by only three points in that time.
"It was an exercise in endurance," Riley said. "It was a marathon."
Not so surprisingly, the Laker offensive sputter coincided with the time Riley was resting Abdul-Jabbar.
"If they had exploded and gone way ahead, I would have made a mistake," Riley said.
Until they got careless in the final seconds, there weren't very many Laker goofs to go around. Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar took care of that.
"If you're paying them a million dollars, I hope they can make the big plays," Brown said. "That's what they're supposed to do."
So if Brown's words to Riley come true and the Lakers do reach the finals, it's going to take some more big plays in some small regular-season games to get them there.