The Phoenix suns were a few long steps from their first NBA title, and the Los Angeles Lakers were a few short steps from the graveyard, when they began their all-but-predetermined Western Conference first-round playoff series last week in Phoenix. But two of the most unlikely results in playoff history pumped life into the Lakers—call them Team Resurrection—and pushed Phoenix perilously close to a premature Sun-set.
In the opener of the best-of-five series at the America West Arena on Friday, L.A. stunned Phoenix, the league's best team during the regular season, with a 107-103 victory to become the first No. 8 seed to win a playoff game on the road since the league went to a 16-team postseason format in 1984. Two days later the Lakers' 86-81 come-from-behind shocker, also in Phoenix, made them only the second eighth seed to win two games, home or away, against a No. 1 seed.
The first game was a major surprise; the second, nothing less than a minor miracle. Going into the 1992-93 postseason, No. 8 seeds had won only seven of 61 games against No. 1's. Furthermore, the Phoenix-Los Angeles series was not exactly a likely candidate to go against form. The Suns had won all five of their regular-season meetings with the Lakers, and the teams appeared to represent polar opposites on the emotional barometer, with the chest-thumping Suns on top and the cheerless Lakers on the bottom.
This season Phoenix's clubhouse was the loosest in the NBA, peopled by a fascinating cast of characters: Calm, cool and collected first-year coach Paul Westphal; talented point guard Kevin Johnson; seasoned playoff veteran Danny Ainge; hungry guard Dan Majerle; and, of course, Charles Barkley, a man all but owed a championship ring by the basketball gods. The Lakers? You couldn't twirl a yo-yo around their locker room without hitting a dead man. Rookie coach Randy Pfund was reportedly on his way out, the knowledge he gained as a Laker assistant for seven years, five of them under Pat Riley, obscured by his apparent inability to motivate his players. (One scenario, which all parties deny, has Magic Johnson replacing him next season.) Small forward James Worthy, 32, was a shadow of his former All-Star self, and shooting guard Byron Scott, also 32, wasn't even that. Center Vlade Divac was, as usual, set to be trade bait at the end of the postseason—when the going gets tough, said the pundits, the Yugo would be a no-go. As for point guard Sedale Threatt, he had the major drawback of not being Magic.
How to explain, then, the events that turned the Suns' new arena into a chamber of horrors for the hometown heroes? Here's the succinct version: In Game 1, Threatt happened, and in Game 2, Barkley did not. The opener did have a degree of logic to it. KJ, Phoenix's quarterback, was sidelined by an injured left knee, which he had twisted and bruised during a chest-thumping celebration with Barkley on April 22. So Threatt, Johnson's counterpart, went ballistic, scoring 35 points. Scott, too, had an outstanding game, finishing with 22 points. Thus when Barkley was asked for his postgame assessment, he responded with one word: "Guards."
Majerle and Ainge, Phoenix's long-range bombers, converted only one of 11 three-point attempts between them. All told, the Sun backcourt was outscored 67-31. Just think how bad things would've been for Phoenix if broadcaster Magic, who would be on hand for Game 2 of the series, had been wearing a purple-and-gold uniform instead of a headset.
On Sunday it wasn't the guards that extinguished the Suns. It was Barkley. He wound up with 18 points and 21 rebounds but missed all seven of his shots in the fourth period, during which the Suns didn't score a basket in the final 5:54. Said Charles, "I couldn't hit nothing."
But are there deeper reasons to explain the events in Phoenix? Perhaps playoff experience is a good place to start. Besides Ainge, who had played in 149 postseason games before the series, and Barkley (51), the Suns were babes when it came to playoff pressure. The other 10 Suns had played in a combined 233 postseason games.
By contrast, Worthy had played in 138 playoff games, Scott in 137, war-horse power forward A.C. Green in 98. Even Threatt had seen action in 44 postseason games during his checkered 10-year career with four teams. "We have guys on this team [the aforementioned trio, Pfund and center James Edwards] with championship rings," said Divac after Game 2. "I think it helped. They are battle-tested."
Maybe the Suns' relative lack of playoff experience helps explain some of those moments in both Games 1 and 2 when the Suns played like wooden soldiers instead of loosey-goosey front-runners. With time running out in Game 2 and Phoenix trailing 84-81, Westphal screamed at his players to press, but they sat back and allowed the Lakers to advance the ball unchallenged to midcourt. Then, after L.A. called a timeout, Scott hit a 16-foot jumper to ice the game.
Then there were the coaches. While Westphal had served a four-year apprenticeship under Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix, Pfund had coached beside Riley, the master of playoff preparation, in 80 postseason games. Ironically, Pfund conjured up the 1975-76 Suns, of which Westphal was a playing member, in his preseries motivational talk. That team had reached the NBA Finals (in which it lost to the Boston Celtics in six games) despite being only 42-40 in the regular season. The Lakers crawled into Phoenix with the only losing record (39-43) among the 16 playoff teams.
The Suns proved to be vulnerable on one other front: They lacked an effective meanie down low to help Barkley. They had a chance to land one, Detroit Piston madman Dennis Rodman, but on the morning of Feb. 25, a few hours before the trading deadline, Phoenix CEO Jerry Colangelo listened to a terse message that his wife, Joan, had left on his office answering machine. It said: "Don't trade Dumas." Joan was referring to a rumored deal that would have brought Rodman to the Suns for (among others) gifted rookie Richard Dumas. Whether or not domestic tranquillity was the main reason—O.K., it probably wasn't—Colangelo backed away from the deal. Certainly Phoenix could've used a Rodman to guard Worthy out on the perimeter, to push Divac around on the blocks and to keep Green off the boards.
Still, the fact remains that Colangelo assembled, and Westphal coached, a team that won 62 games this season. So perhaps it's as simple as this: The Lakers merely played two better basketball games. In the opener Threatt was practically unstoppable, making 17 of 24 shots, and Barkley, who had a monster game with 34 points and 15 rebounds, couldn't find enough support. "If Sedale had played that good in Philly," said Barkley of his former 76er teammate, with whom he roomed on the road as a rookie in 1984-85, "they never would've traded him." On Saturday afternoon Barkley offered a succinct but accurate observation of Game 1: "I did my part, but nobody else could hit."
The Suns began Sunday's Game 2 with a desperate enthusiasm that gradually worked against them. "We were celebrating, the fans were going nuts, we were high-fiving, and I looked up at the scoreboard and we were up by one point," said KJ. "We shouldn't have to count on emotion to win."
The Lakers, meanwhile, came out with a sound game plan—keep the tempo at a snail's pace—and stuck to it. Which is not to say they were unemotional. Right before tip-off Threatt gave Barkley a little push, "just to let him know it was going to be physical," said Threatt. Later, Threatt reminded reporters that he, being a veteran when Barkley arrived in the league as a rookie, had called the shots during road trips with the Sixers. "I made Charles go get milk for me and turn out the lights," said Threatt.
KJ returned to turn out Threatt's lights in Game 2—Threatt had only nine points—but Barkley's offense took a nosedive. Divac sank two big baskets down the stretch, a classic hook and a dunk off a spin move that left forward-center Tom Chambers in the dust. Worthy and Scott turned back the playoff clock, the former with a big three-pointer that tied the score at 80-80 with 2:29 to go, the latter with a jumper that made it 86-81 with :26.3 on the clock and capped a 7-for-10 shooting performance by Scott. After the buzzer the normally stoical Worthy raised an arm in a We're No. 1 gesture and, as the crowd booed, slammed the ball off the court so hard that it bounced 40 feet into the air. In the meantime Phoenix was sending out APBs for Majerle (7 for 26 from the field in the two games) and Ainge (5 for 20).
Following Game 2, Barkley struggled to explain the revolting developments. "We're not playing relaxed," said Barkley. "We were successful this year because we were loose and we had fun. We've got a lot of expectations on us now, and we've not handled those expectations well. We're tense, and that's the wrong attitude to have. We've not having fun."
When all his teammates save Johnson had left the locker room, Barkley looked subdued and hurt. He picked up the stat sheet and frowned. "Well," he said to no one in particular, "the Lord won't put more on me than I can handle."
We'll see. The Great Western Forum, site of Games 3 and 4, would no doubt be rocking, a departure from the moribund atmosphere in which most Laker home business had been conducted during the regular season. Back in Phoenix, before the teams left for L.A., Westphal chose to take an aggressive stand on the Suns' chances of survival. "We're a better team than the Lakers," said Westphal, "and we will win the series."
The first part of Westphal's sentence was undoubtedly correct, at least on paper. But the second part was in serious doubt.
JOHN W. McDONOUGH
To the delight of Pfund (above), Barkley had tough going against L.A.'s supposed "no-go."
JOHN W. McDONOUGH
Majerle was only a minor hurdle for the Lakers in Games 1 and 2.