The Lakers' defensive conscience, Michael Cooper, was tired of seeing the Dallas Mavericks score on so many easy layups.
So the next time one of the Mavericks drove unmolested toward the basket, Cooper molested him.
Only then did he realize the victim was Brad Davis, the National Basketball Assn.'s fourth-leading free-throw shooter. Before Friday night's game at the Forum, Davis had missed only 18 of 167 foul shots.
"That's not the man we wanted to foul in that situation," Laker Coach Pat Riley said.
The situation: With 42 seconds remaining, the Lakers were hanging on to a four-point lead.
"I thought I'd made a mistake," Cooper said.
Davis stepped confidently to the line and missed both free throws, enabling the Lakers to run out the clock in a 120-115 victory that could have gone either way.
"I don't know what happened," Davis said.
Any number of his teammates could have said the same thing. The Lakers tried to give the game away, but the Mavericks wouldn't take it.
After making 36 of 38 free-throw attempts in their previous two games, the Mavericks entered this one with the league's third-best percentage (.795) from the line. In their five-year history, they had never shot better.
Against the Lakers, Dallas made only 12 of 21 free throws for a .571 average. The Mavericks shot almost as well from the field, .531.
The Mavericks needed this one more than the Lakers did. In the race for second place in the Midwest Division, Dallas fell 2 1/2 games behind Houston.
If the Mavericks can't catch Houston, they will have to play the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs, presuming that both teams win in the first round.
As for the Lakers, the victory was their 12th in the last 13 games.
Leading the Pacific Division by 17 1/2 games and only three victories away from clinching the homecourt advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs, they are running out of reasons to play well every night.
They would like to maintain their slim advantages over Philadelphia and Milwaukee to finish with the league's second-best record. That would give the Lakers the homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs against every team except Boston.
The Lakers also would like to finish with 60 victories for only the fourth time in the team's history. They can do that by winning six of their remaining nine games.
Still, the tendency is to begin winding down when the division championship has long since been clinched.
"Everybody was flat tonight for some reason," forward Bob McAdoo said. "Maybe it's because we're so far ahead in the division. It's easy to have a letdown now and then."
But Riley didn't feel it should have come Friday night, when the Lakers were playing at the Forum for only the third time in the last nine games. Even though they scored their 12th straight victory at the Forum, he felt they shortchanged the crowd of 15,683.
"Sometimes, when you play poorly on the road, it's understandable," he said. "But we want to keep the homecourt advantage so that teams won't think they can come in here and beat us."
Riley was particularly disappointed in the Laker defense, which had been superb against Dallas this season. In four previous games this season against the Lakers, three of them losses, the Mavericks shot only 42.9% from the field.
But even though basketball is a non-contact sport, the Lakers took it to ridiculous extremes Friday night.
The Mavericks shot 60% in the first half, scoring 10 straight points early in the first quarter and leading by nine early in the second.
Mark Aguirre, the league's seventh-leading scorer, made 6 of 8 shots in the first half, when he scored 16 of his 28 points.
Riley said the Lakers were "constantly getting burned" by the Mavericks' methodical offense, which takes advantage of flat-footed defenders.
After Riley explained the situation during intermission, the Lakers played an aggressive, trapping defense early in the third quarter and built a nine-point lead of their own.
But they allowed the Mavericks to pass them in the fourth quarter and would have been in deep trouble if not for McAdoo's 10 points in the final 12 minutes. McAdoo finished with a season-high 22 points, hitting 11 of 14 shots.
"Bob's got his own little clock he operates on," Riley said. "He punches in at this time of the year."
Magic Johnson led the Lakers in scoring with 23 points. He also had 13 assists. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 22 points, while Byron Scott had 20 and James Worthy 16. For the Mavericks, forward Sam Perkins had 19 points and 10 rebounds.
"Dallas played well, but I don't think we were very sharp," Riley said. "Regardless, every win is a Picasso."
Laker Notes With his fourth assist Friday night, Magic Johnson broke the team assist record of 875 that he set last season. . . . The Lakers play Phoenix at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Forum before going on the road for games at Denver Tuesday night and San Antonio Wednesday night.