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Original Issue


Unlikely heroes helped the upstart Suns push the Lakers to the brink of extinction

As if it weren't enough that Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the host Phoenix Suns was televised back to L.A., an additional feed was piped into the American Pavilion in Cannes, France. This, the NBA announced, was to satisfy "the great interest in this series in the Hollywood community." Yet the fare was undoubtedly too vulgar for those artier members of the community who were attending the Cannes International Film Festival. It would be best to file it alongside Earthquake, the disaster movie also featuring the destruction of several Los Angeles institutions.

By losing Games 3 and 4 over the weekend in Phoenix by a total of 27 points, the Lakers fell behind 3-1 in the series and headed back to the Forum for a game Tuesday night that could result in their extinction. Not even Dino De Laurentiis would have dreamed of foisting such an unlikely calamity on the Los Angeles viewing public; after all, the Lakers have been to the NBA Finals eight of the last 10 years, have won five league championships and have been death to the Suns, sweeping them from the postseason in 1985 and again last year. Although the team of the '80s began the new decade without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—its first season without him since '74—this was not a franchise in obvious decline. On the contrary, L.A. had the best record, 63-19, in the NBA this season.

Yet anybody who watched the Suns manhandle the Lakers 114-101 on Sunday had to wonder whether Los Angeles hadn't suddenly become old, or suddenly become bad. The Lakers looked as rattled as rookies. At one point in the second quarter, an inbounds pass from A.C. Green sailed over Larry Drew and nearly conked center Mychal Thompson on the head. Near the end of the half, only Magic Johnson seemed aware that the clock was running down, so he pleaded for Green to shoot. Green didn't. L.A.'s Mr. Consistency, James Worthy, who had shot terribly (9 for 26) in the Lakers' loss at home in Game 1, had another poor outing, making only five of 21 field-goal attempts. For a team with such glowing credentials, Los Angeles's lack of composure was astonishing.

Charlton Heston, please report to the scorer's table.

Among the Lakers the alarm was palpable following Sunday's defeat. After their 117-103 loss in Game 3 last Saturday, it was still possible for them to inspire themselves by citing precedent. In 1988 they had trailed the Utah Jazz 2-1 in the conference semifinals before winning in seven games and going on to win the NBA title. However, being down 3-1 was uncharted waters for this group. The '69-70 Lakers escaped from a 3-1 hole to eliminate the Suns in the first round and become one of only four teams in NBA history to accomplish that feat.

"It's nervous time," said L.A.'s Michael Cooper on Sunday. "There are beads of sweat on our foreheads." Magic had to agree, quibbling only over words. Asked if the situation was scary, he said, "I wouldn't say scary, more like desperate."

The Suns, meanwhile, were drawing confidence from some unlikely sources. Guard Jeff Hornacek, once a walk-on at Iowa State, scored 23 points in Game 4 as an encore to his out-of-his-mind 29-point burst the day before. "Wouldn't it be sweet," Hornacek asked Kevin Johnson, the Suns' splendid point guard, as they showered, "to wrap this up in Los Angeles?"

How had Phoenix come to harbor such expectations? Cotton Fitzsimmons, who was the NBA Coach of the Year last season after turning a 28-54 team into a 55-27 contender, has the luxury of experience these days. Except for former Laker cult figure Kurt Rambis, whom the Suns acquired from the Charlotte Hornets during the season, Fitzsimmons's starters are guys who went through last year's playoffs. "We learned from last year," said Kevin Johnson. "Last year we got caught up in all the hype, being on CBS, worrying about how to dress for the playoffs."

At least one person should keep worrying. The series began with Fitzsimmons—who is not in Riley's league sartorially—wearing a white cotton golf shirt given to him at the arena by Sun trainer Joe Proski. Fitzsimmons had left his own shirt at the hotel. Phoenix hadn't won in the Forum in 24 games, dating back to the 1983-84 season, and Fitzsimmons hadn't had a victory there in 37 games, going back to the Nixon Administration, when he coached the Atlanta Hawks. After the Suns' 104-102 Game 1 win, Fitzsimmons credited the shirt for this unlikely turn of events and vowed to wear it forever.

But another improbable hero, Phoenix center Mark West, deserved some mention, too. Before the start of the series, the Suns' Johnson, grown wise beyond his 24 years, tried to inspire West, a veteran of seven nondescript seasons, by challenging him to be "emotional" against Los Angeles. "He said it was unnatural for him," said KJ, "but I said all of us have to do things that might be a little out of character, do more than we're used to doing, to give the team an edge."

West, who had never averaged in double figures until this season (10.5), was superhuman in Game 1, scoring 24 points, getting 16 rebounds and blocking seven shots. Meanwhile, the Lakers' two centers, Thompson and Vlade Divac, combined for 13, 10 and three. It didn't help that Magic shot four for 14 or that Cooper, mired in a playoff slump, went scoreless for a third successive game by missing all five of his shots. Said Thompson, "We played like a first-year playoff team."

Fitzsimmons was careful not to put too much stock in an opening-game victory in a best-of-seven series. "Heck, we could just as easily start another 37-game losing streak," he said.

A losing streak did begin, but it lasted exactly one game. Worthy propped up the the Lakers' mystique in Game 2 with 27 points in a fast-paced 124-100 L.A. romp at the Forum. Divac scored 16, West only nine. KJ, who had suffered a hip pointer in Phoenix's first-round series against Utah and had scored nine points in Game 1, was subpar again.

Everybody, even the Suns, agreed that this was closer to the way the series was supposed to shape up. "I told you they were going to throw a fast train at us, with smoking engines," said Fitzsimmons. Rambis, cooling his tender feet in a pail of ice water after the game, allowed that there was a certain inevitability when it came to Laker basketball. "Everybody in California knows an earthquake is coming," he said, "but they don't move out of state. We knew what was going to happen to us."

What to do?

"Well, first, I'm going to burn this shirt, baby," said Fitzsimmons.

By the time the series got to Phoenix, Game 1 was generally regarded as an aberration. The Suns, however improved, were looking like another failed contender (see the Dallas Mavericks and the Jazz of recent seasons), and KJ's chest-butts with his teammates, an odd new form of congratulation, appeared headed for America's Funniest Home Videos.

But on Saturday, KJ started getting in Laker faces instead of in Sun chests. Said Magic, "Seems like the first five times he touched the ball, he drove." The results were immediate: KJ had six first-quarter points en route to 22 for the game. But more important, forward Tom Chambers, Phoenix's leading scorer in the regular season, recovered from a nine-point effort in Game 2 to score 34 points. "Kevin and I were embarrassed by our play [in the first two games]," said Chambers afterward. "We're both All-Stars, but if you watched us in the last two games, you wouldn't pick us out of a crowd in a million years."

Actually, Chambers and KJ, the Suns' headliners, were overshadowed by Hornacek, who had brought a career playoff scoring average of 14.7 into the series only to stun the Lakers with his sudden offensive surge. He made 10 of 16 field goal attempts in Game 3 as Phoenix shot 60%. "He was in a groove," said Magic. "He was on fire. He did anything he wanted." Even then, the understanding among the Lakers was that Hornacek's outburst was a fluke, to which any player was entitled. Yet privately there was a growing concern because the Suns, one by one, seemed to be having these kinds of moments. Reminded that L.A. had been down 2-1 before and survived, Thompson said, "This is different. Phoenix is a better team than that Utah team."

In Game 4 the Suns were better than that Los Angeles team. Hornacek made his first six shots and scored 16 points in the first quarter, during which Phoenix scorched the Lakers 36-22. None of the other Suns missed much, either; Phoenix shot 76% in the period. Throughout the game, KJ, who would finish the day with 30 points, drove at will to the basket—and when he wasn't scoring off these moves, he kicked the ball out to Chambers, Hornacek, whomever, for open shots. Meanwhile, West scored all seven of his baskets in the first half, three of them rattling dunks off offensive rebounds.

As negligible as the Lakers' middle was on defense, it was invisible on offense. Thompson and Divac had seven points between them. And Scott, Los Angeles's third-leading scorer during the regular season, had only four points. Only Magic's one-man stand kept the Lakers in contention. Operating freely against the 6'3" Hornacek (and less freely when guarded by 6'6" Dan Majerle), Magic worked his way inside to set up his little swing move and the baby hook that Abdul-Jabbar taught him long ago. His determination was unyielding. The game's greatest passer no longer looked for the assist; instead, he dribbled deep, his back to the basket, and spun. He had 14 points in the third quarter as he brought the Lakers to within five points, 84-79, with a layup and hook at the end of the period. One-on-five isn't fair, though, even if Magic is the one. When L.A. pulled to within four, 94-90, with 4:39 remaining, the Suns reeled off seven straight points.

Afterward, Magic was beside himself. "We're not getting offensive input from some of the guys," he said. "I had to get in more offensively. I'd rather have 22 points and more assists, but I did what I had to do."

So it had come to this: Groping for a glimmer of hope, the Lakers began talking of the week ahead as a three-game miniseries, with no margin for error. But there was also some preparation for the worst. Explanations for a playoff failure began to form. Cooper invoked the name of Abdul-Jabbar, even though the latter hadn't been missed during the regular season, during which the great Divac experiment was proclaimed a success. But now, the Lakers were wondering, Where was Cap? Also, there was the matter of these newer players—Divac, Drew and Woolridge. "They don't know about winning," said Cooper.

Now, it seemed, even those Lakers who knew about winning were beginning to forget. As a result, the franchise of the '80s appeared to be teetering perilously as it entered the '90s. The Hollywood community, scattered as it may be, isn't going to enjoy this.



Hornacek, the Suns' unheralded guard, averaged an unlikely 26 points in Games 3 and 4.



An inspired West, here stuffing Thompson, owned the middle.



Johnson vs. Johnson: KJ (7) was outscored by Magic 43-30 on Sunday, but it didn't matter.



The Lakers' expressions reflected the daunting task at hand: to win three games in a row.



Lakers like Cooper couldn't get a grip on Chambers, who scored 61 last weekend.