When Johnson dislocated his right index finger on Dec. 2, Scott was given his first chance to start at point guard. In eight games Scott hardly proved to be like Johnson, but he did prove that he couldn't shoot. After 11 games, Scott was shooting a wretched 32.8% and turning the ball over a lot. "The trouble in the beginning was that we tried to make Byron more of a ball handler than he really was," Riley says. "He was confused, and that hurt him." Scott's tenure as the starting point guard was considerably foreshortened after the Lakers suffered a disastrous 30-turnover performance under his guidance at Phoenix on Dec. 15.
Riley buried Scott on the bench for almost five full games in mid-January, a period that, coincidentally or not, came during the Lakers' strangest streak—four wins in a row on the road and four straight losses at home. After a 102-91 loss to Seattle on Jan. 15 that gave the Lakers their most consecutive home defeats (four) in six years, Riley decided to try Scott again, this time as the off guard. Since then, Scott has been in double figures in 16 of the 19 games he has started, and is now shooting 46.1%. The Lakers have gone 14-5 with Scott as a regular. Last week Riley referred to what had always been called "the Norm Nixon trade" as "the Byron Scott deal."
How the Lakers do in the playoffs this year will, of course, have less to do with Scott than with Johnson, who's having his finest season. L.A. was 7-6 in the games Magic missed with his finger injury and is 30-13 in games he has played. He leads the NBA in assists with 14.3 a game and, remarkably, has yet to be held below double-figures in assists. In last week's victory over Seattle at the Forum, Johnson tied the NBA record of Bob Cousy and John Lucas by accumulating 12 assists in the first quarter, and finished the first half with 18. He wound up with 23, his career high, tying Jerry West for the franchise record. "They had guys fighting each other to get the layups," said Seattle's David Thompson. "Magic? Well, he was awesome."
One of the most noticeable changes in Johnson's game this year is his shooting, which he has always considered secondary to passing. Now more inclined to limber up and fire at the very outset of a game, as he did against Philadelphia Sunday—he had 23 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists—Johnson has become the Lakers' best outside threat; he's making 59% of his shots from outside 18 feet, compared with 54.7% overall. "Teams started to sag and leave me alone out there," he says. "I always laughed when people said I couldn't shoot. But when I'm thinking 'shot,' most of the time it goes in."
If there was ever any doubt about who is the better passer—Magic or Bird—Johnson has put an end to that debate this year with his spectacular repertoire of spin and angle passes. "The angle is what it's all about," Magic says. "I read the angles so that if I can hit that seam and find the angle, somebody can take the pass and shoot without breaking stride. It's just like shooting pool: You have to anticipate what's going to happen, read the angle, then pow! It just happens...pow!"
"You never know what he's going to do with it," says 6'9" small forward James Worthy, who seems completely recovered from the broken leg he suffered at the end of last season and who was majestic on the run against the Celtics, scoring 27 points off the bench. "There's something amazing about the way Magic can get it to you in traffic."
Johnson has had his moments off the court, too. He received a nasty scare when his friend, pop singer Michael Jackson, got his hair singed while filming a commercial on Jan. 27, then got some good news when he learned that the championship series this year won't conflict with the reunion tour of the Jackson Brothers. Magic intends to be there for both. "When it's winning time, I'll always be there," Magic says, hearkening back to the Jacksons' 1970 hit, I'll Be There.
And, as the song goes, just call his name.