With only 12 games left until the real season begins, the Lakers are the hottest team in the NBA, which shouldn't surprise anybody, not even the Lakers, who say they can still play better.
Sunday night at the Forum, the Lakers doctored Detroit, 148-130, for their 10th consecutive victory, during which time they have played no favorites. They've beaten the bad, such as Cleveland and the Clippers, along with the good, such as Houston and the Pistons, and now they're looking ahead to new challenges.
"It's kind of scary, really," Michael Cooper said. "We know we can play even better than this and when the playoffs come, we can turn it on."
That would be a rather unsettling thought. The Pistons had the misfortune to get caught in the Lakers' hottest streak in six seasons. The Lakers have now won 21 of their last 23 games and 26 out of 30.
Now that they're 34 games over .500 with a division championship in their pocket and a conference title nearly there, the Lakers only worry right now seems to be that they could be peaking too soon.
"What should we do?" asked Laker Coach Pat Riley. "Lose a couple."
Not necessarily, although the Lakers might be hard-pressed to keep playing at this same level until the playoffs begin April 18.
Against the Pistons, who didn't do badly at all, the Lakers blocked 10 shots, shot 65%, had 78 points by the half and broke open a somewhat close game early in the fourth quarter after they finally figured out what to do with Isiah Thomas--put him on the bench.
Thomas played 42 minutes, but it was during the couple of minutes when he had to rest that the Lakers put some distance between themselves and the Pistons.
The Lakers held a shaky 112-105 lead when Thomas was sitting and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came back into the game. Larry Spriggs hit a jumper, then Abdul-Jabbar scored 10 consecutive points and the Laker lead moved to 124-111, then 135-111.
The only points that Detroit managed during that time were six, two by Thomas and four by Terry Tyler.
Even though Detroit had struggled to stay close with Thomas' 30 points and 15 assists, they finally sank because of their defense which had troubled them all along.
Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers with 30 points on a 15-for-19 evening while Magic Johnson came up with his 11th triple-double of the season with 25 points, 19 assists and 10 rebounds.
"We played well enough to beat anybody else in the league tonight except the Lakers," Thomas said. "Not the way they're playing.
"They've got so much confidence right now," he said. "Anytime Larry Spriggs is hitting 20-footers, Mike McGee is shooting three-pointers and even Mitch Kupchak has enough nerve to shoot a 20-footer, then I've got to believe this is something they can maintain for awhile."
Thomas didn't mention Kurt Rambis, but he probably should have. Rambis scored 16 points, took down 11 rebounds, blocked two shots and followed a missed Johnson layup with a trailing slam dunk on the rebound.
Add a couple of alley-oop slam dunks by Abdul-Jabbar and you can see what Thomas was talking about. At this point, the Lakers are playing about as well as they can.
"It's still within our potential to get better," Abdul-Jabbar said. "We're just now getting there. We haven't been at this point all year and that's a good sign for us."
Abdul-Jabbar did say that the Lakers are playing better now than at any point since he joined the team 10 years ago.
Riley has been able to use a lot of his players without wearing out any of his starters.
"We play up to the caliber of our opposition," Cooper said. "I think we can run it up a notch or two higher when the time comes. It may be hard to be motivated from here on out until the playoffs, though, because we don't play too many tough teams."
The Lakers have two games left with Denver and one with Dallas, but those are the only ones against teams with winning records.
"I don't think they'll have any problem staying up," Thomas said. "Kareem is playing so great and so is Magic. When the other guys see them playing like that, it catches them, too."
Laker Notes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became the NBA's career leader in field goals attempted after his third shot of the game. He passed Elvin Hayes. . . . The 148 points was a Laker high this season. . . . Detroit outrebounded the Lakers, 44-37, with Bill Laimbeer getting 14, which marked the first time in the Lakers' winning streak that they were outrebounded. . . . James Worthy, who showed an ability to hit medium-range jump shots, said he plans to keep wearing goggles the rest of the year.