Magic Johnson's three-point bomb that sent the game into overtime Sunday at Philadelphia was nice.
But the play that best demonstrated Magic's value to the Lakers came during the third quarter. The Lakers had a 10-point lead, the 76ers had the ball. A 76er shot bounded off the rim and Magic snatched the rebound.
He pushed the ball quickly upcourt and whipped a pass inside to a teammate for what looked like a fairly easy layup, but the teammate missed the shot.
A normal guard, after making the same pass, would be backpedaling, thinking defense. Magic crashed the lane, grabbed the rebound in traffic, laid it in and was fouled. He made the free throw to complete a three-point play and give the Lakers a 13-point lead.
Since he invents plays like this on a fairly regular basis, maybe it's time Magic Johnson started getting some mention for consideration for the Larry Bird Trophy, otherwise known as the NBA MVP award.
Magic has slumped the last few weeks with that sore knee, but Bird himself, the current MVP favorite, slumped earlier in the season, also with nagging injuries.
Can Magic win the big prize, officially known as the Maurice Podoloff Trophy? Probably not. The league's players elected the MVP until the start of this decade, and the players' last five MVPs were western centers--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, three times, Bill Walton, then in Portland, and Moses Malone, then in Houston.
Since the writers and broadcasters have taken over the voting, four of the five MVPs have been Eastern guys, and none of the five are Lakers.
There is still debate over whether the Lakers made a mistake by firing Bob McAdoo and hiring Maurice Lucas.
But the weight, so to speak, shifted to Lucas' side of the argument Sunday. Against a team such as Philadelphia, with twin raging bulls Malone and Charles Barkley, the Lakers needed Lucas' nastiness.
The same will be true in a finals showdown against the Celtics, if Kevin McHale is back.
For the Lakers to go into a series against Boston, or Philadelphia, or Washington, without a designated thug would be very dangerous.
I'm not sure who has more finesse and more subtle moves on offense--Moses Malone or Refrigerator Perry.
For the Lakers, one of the most encouraging stats from Sunday's game was Kareem's seven blocked shots.
Abdul-Jabbar even aggressively challenged the fearsome drives of Charles (Bite Worse Than Bark) Barkley. It was the kind of interior hard work that can raise the Lakers from an adequate defensive team to a great one.
Pro basketball is the last sport with a true East vs. West rivalry.
Baseball is American vs. National, with no distinctive East-West styles. The AL vs. NL rivalry is strong, but the lack of interleague play--except for the World Series--wipes out any real East-West feeling.
Pro football has no strong Eastern and Western styles or rivalries.
The NCAA basketball tournament used to be a wonderful meeting of East vs. West, a clash of styles and cultures, but now it's a lottery with contrived pairings, completely devoid of regionality.
Stripping the first-round basketball pairings of their geographical integrity was the worst move the NCAA ever made.
But the NBA, by luck or accident or design, is still East vs. West. Each Eastern Conference team meets each Western Conference team twice per season, just enough to stimulate interest and curiosity and tempers.
The styles are still contrasting. The Eastern Conference is muscleball, banging and bruising, the Elbow Conference.
And everything West of the Mississippi is still Hollywoodball.
The perfect example of the East vs. West is the contrast of styles in Kareem vs. Moses. The Skyhook vs. the Piledrive.
Once upon a time, really big men in the NBA were novelties and freaks. With the exception of Wilt, oversized players mostly stumbled around or thugged it up.
Now. . . . How's this for an all-oversize team:
Center--Manute Bol (7-7, 200), still just learning to play the game, but already the ultimate weapon on defense. Lord help the league if he ever develops a skyhook.
Forwards--Charles Barkley (6-6, 260), strength and agility beyond the realm of mere mortals; Kevin McHale (6-10, 225), guarding him poses the biggest defensive puzzle in the NBA.
Guards--Magic Johnson (6-9, 215), too tall and too slow to play point guard, and his limitations will catch up with him any decade now; Ralph Sampson (7-4, 228), still playing out of position in the front court in Houston, but wait until Jerry Buss sells Pickfair and buys Ralph.