With only 17 games left in the regular season, the Lakers are finally close enough that the end is actually in sight.
And what will they see then?
"The playoffs, and we're gearing our car up for them right now," Magic Johnson said. "We're like tuning up now so we can be hot and come out smoking."
For at least one night, smoking was allowed in the Forum. Caught in the Laker exhaust Tuesday night were the Clippers, whose slim playoff chances became even smaller in a hurry.
The Lakers won their sixth straight game by dropping the Clippers, 129-108, before 15,656, the smallest Laker home crowd in almost a month.
Those who stayed at home missed one of the better Laker fast-breaking games in a while. Johnson had 16 assists, 13 in the first half when the Lakers built a 67-50 lead and effectively put the Clippers away early.
The Clippers fell to 19 games below .500, losing their fourth game in a row. They've still got 17 games to look forward to, but not much else.
"Things aren't getting any easier," the Clippers' Kurt Nimphius said.
Maybe not, but it sure looked easy for the Lakers, especially in the first half, the only part of the game that held much interest. One of the only highlights of the second half was the Laker debut of Jerome Henderson, who scored four points in five minutes.
This compares favorably to Cedric Maxwell, who scored five points in 28 minutes for the Clippers. All in all, Clipper Coach Don Chaney found nothing favorable with his starters, except for Benoit Benjamin, who scored a career-high 28 points and had 16 rebounds.
"We have to have leadership," Chaney said. "The veterans have got to come through, step in and take charge. We come in here, and we assume we'll lose the game."
In that case, the Clippers assumed correctly, which didn't make Chaney feel much better.
"It's like we're in quicksand," he said. "The more movement, the worse it becomes. The more we play, the more losses we have."
And the more the Lakers play as the regular-season games dwindle, the better their fast break looks. Or was it just the Clippers who made it appear so good?
Johnson got the Lakers off to a running start in the first quarter when they broke open the game. The Clippers led briefly before the Lakers went on a 17-0 streak and jumped to a 28-13 lead.
"We were in total control of the game from almost the very beginning," Magic said. "I never felt worried."
Johnson had 10 assists in the first quarter, and the Lakers closed out the first half with a lot of flash, most of it on the fast break.
The first-half Laker highlights included a James Worthy breakaway and left-handed dunk, Rambis drilling a 16-foot jumper, and in one of the oldest fast-break combinations in the league, 33-year-old Maurice Lucas assisting 38-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on a dunk.
Coach Pat Riley said the Laker fast break is improving, all right, but he insisted that there's still work to be done before the playoffs.
"We're a little sporadic," he said. "We're running pretty well off the misses, but we're not running as well as we can off the makes, off the push. We need work on that."
Johnson agreed that the Laker speed game is coming, but he said it's still not here yet.
"It isn't like we want it to be," he said. "We're getting our points in spurts like we did at the start of the season, and that's a good sign."
There were few good signs for the Clippers, outside of the play of Benjamin and a mini-run by Rory White, who with 16 points tried to keep the Lakers from getting out of sight.
On the other hand, neither Marques Johnson nor Norm Nixon did very much. They combined to shoot 8 for 24 and score 18 points, which was one less than Abdul-Jabbar scored in just 26 minutes.
Clipper General Manager Carl Scheer said an announcement will be made today that guard Derek Smith won't play again this season. Smith underwent surgery Nov. 15 to correct cartilage damage in his left knee. The announcement apparently has caught Clipper Coach Don Chaney off-guard. "As far as I know, there has been no decision made," Chaney said. "I guess we'll find out today." . . . The Clippers will face the Seattle SuperSonics and Xavier McDaniel, Seattle's star rookie, at 7:30 tonight at the Sports Arena. . . . Laker owner Jerry Buss has put Pickfair, his Beverly Hills estate, on the market. The price? Buss is asking $11.5 million. Buss bought the former home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on Sept. 19, 1980 for $5.4 million.