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Original Issue

The Suns turned on the heat

Maurice Lucas's power helped lift Phoenix to a 3-1 lead over Utah

Maurice Lucas of the Phoenix Suns arrived for work last Friday night driving his gold 1982 Mercedes 380 SEL. Knee high on the right leg of his expensive suit trousers was a $1.98 Ace bandage wrapped around a plastic bag full of shaved ice. The car and clothes are byproducts of Lucas's success—after 10 seasons in pro ball he remains the prototypical power forward—and the bandage and ice, which were there to reduce swelling above the knee, were by-products of the 6'9", 235-pound Lucas's blue-collar style of play.

After he entered the Arizona Veteran's Memorial Coliseum, Lucas would, in a process fraught with symbolism, unwrap the bandage and shed his suit in preparation for Game 3 of the Suns' Western semifinal series with the Utah Jazz. As he undressed, Lucas also seemed to take the wraps off his bruising game, to remove any trace of his considerable off-court civility. After being held to only eight points and three rebounds in Utah's 105-95 victory in Game 1, Lucas had 17 points and 15 rebounds as Phoenix won Game 2 102-97. On Friday he would get 22 points and 14 rebounds as the Suns triumphed 106-94. Then on Sunday his two free throws with four seconds left in overtime clinched Game 4 111-110. Lucas continued his all-around play with 26 points and 12 rebounds as Phoenix, which tied the game 103-103 in regulation on Walter Davis's 25-footer, took a 3-1 series lead.

"Somebody really needs to knock Lucas on his ass," one Utah executive said bitterly after Game 3. "Unfortunately, that's what he's doing to us." Take, for example, the case of 6'5" Jazz forward Adrian Dantley, who led the NBA in scoring this season with a 30.6 points-per-game average. In Game 1, Dantley had 36 points on 14-of-19 shooting while being guarded by 6'10" Suns forward Larry Nance. Phoenix coach John MacLeod switched Lucas to Dantley for Game 2. Dantley averaged 31.3 points the next three games but shot just 42% from the field, far below his 56% regular-season average. "Dantley will get his points," Lucas says. "The thing to do is to make him feel every one of them when he goes to bed at night." Lucas did that by fronting him and bumping him when he got the ball.

Such rugged postseason play was in stark contrast to the Suns' regular-season performances. Phoenix, which had won 50 games or more in four of the last five seasons, had to win its final six games just to finish at .500. "We're simply starting to get our butts back from offense to defense and have quit giving up easy baskets," says MacLeod. "For whatever reason, we couldn't get everyone together during the season. One night two guys would have it and the other three wouldn't. The next night the three would and the two wouldn't."

Much of that instability was attributed to the loss of floor leader Dennis Johnson, who was traded to Boston last summer for backup forward Rick Robey. To some observers, the trade was just another instance of the conservative Suns dealing away talented but outspoken players. Of course, an earlier swap, which in 1982 sent grumbling forward Truck Robinson to New York, had brought Lucas, no shrinking violet himself, to Phoenix.

Now he may be headed elsewhere. He'll be a free agent at the conclusion of the playoffs; negotiations with the Suns broke off in midseason because of a disagreement over the length of Lucas's next contract. "Both sides just decided to wait until after the season," says Phoenix general manager Jerry Colangelo. "That way there would be no mind games, and Luke's play wouldn't be affected."

Lucas disagrees with the theory that he's putting out simply to impress potential suitors. "I'm not playing for a contract," he says. "The regular season was rough; we took so much criticism. Now that we're going well, I want to keep it that way, savor it and milk it. I want to wallow in it."

For Lucas, a key member of Portland's 1977 championship team, this season has been something of a vindication. After missing most of the final two games of Phoenix's three-game miniseries playoff loss to Denver last spring with torn ligaments in his left foot, he has come back strongly this season, during which he averaged 15.9 points and a team-leading 9.7 rebounds a game.

In the Suns' opening-round, five-game upset of the Trail Blazers, Lucas averaged 17.8 points and 9.0 rebounds a game against his old team and his old coach, Jack Ramsay. But the Jazz, making its first playoff appearance in its 10 years in the NBA, posed a different challenge. In Lucas's words, "There was no one for me to get riled up about." That quickly changed after Jazz rookie forward Thurl Bailey embarrassed Lucas with 26 points and 13 rebounds in Game 1.

After scoring the opening basket in Game 2, Lucas shoved Utah guard Rickey Green out of his path while running to the other end of the court. The tone was set. "I saw that," Nance said, "and I thought, 'Oh please, let me hit somebody too.' " Meanwhile, the Jazz couldn't hit anything, including the side of a barn, shooting a dismal 37% for the game.

In Game 3, Utah shot slightly better, 43%, as the Suns almost totally took away the Jazz's fast break offense; Green, who dished out 16 assists in Game 1, had only six in the second game and just four in the third. "It really bothers me that people are saying that Lucas is intimidating us," Bailey, who would get just six rebounds after Game 1, said late Friday night. "He's not intimidating us, even if we're playing like he is."

They also found the play of the 6'6" Davis to be pretty scary. Unlike the more temperamental sorts who've drifted in and out of Phoenix uniforms, Davis, who averaged 27.8 in the first four games against the Jazz, has been the Suns' constant, scoring 20.4 points a game on 53.5% shooting during his seven-year career. The graceful Davis, one of the best open-court players in the league, has achieved this success despite often finding himself the object of physical abuse. "That used to be the book on him: Beat him up to take him out of the game," says MacLeod. "What they were really saying was, 'We can't stop him playing the way the game was meant to be played, so we have to get overtly physical.' I guess in a sense it's sort of a compliment."

The Jazz were so impressed by the Suns' play that, going into Game 4 on Sunday, coach Frank Layden said the most important thing was getting to Mass that morning. "I've got to see the padres; something's got to be there," he said. "But sometimes you play your best when your best player has the flu, the team bus breaks down and you spot your mother-in-law driving away in your Mercedes."

In fact, just being in the playoffs has been a big joyride for Utah's surprising Midwest Division champions. "We played an exhibition game in San Diego and stayed in a really gorgeous place," Layden says. "So we decided then that after the last game of the regular season all the players and the coaches and their wives and families would spend a week there. We weren't even thinking about any postseason then. So here we are now—we win the division, we're in the playoffs and our wives are all angry with us because they're not on vacation."

They figure to be soon, after the rough trip their husbands took to Phoenix last week.


With Lucas (left) covering him in Game 3, Dantley couldn't decide which way to turn.


Davis, who thrives in the transition game, sent Game 4 into OT with a 25-footer.


When Dantley eluded Lucas, Nance and center James Edwards came to the rescue.