KANSAS CITY LETS THE SUNS SHINE IN

The underdog Kings got one electrifying performance from Phil Ford in their opening-round playoff loss to fast-moving Phoenix, but what they really needed was hometown hero Tom Watson to hole out some shots
April 14, 1980

When Walter Davis puts the lights out it stays dark. His Phoenix Suns were leading Kansas City 98-83 with 6:20 left in the third and deciding game of their first-round playoff series Sunday, but the Kings were showing signs of life for one of the few times that afternoon, in fact were threatening to put together a rally that could have cut short the Suns' run into the Western Conference semis. It was then that Davis, a forward, came hurtling downcourt on a fast break, which is how he always travels. Davis, it seems, never learned to walk; he went right from crawling to filling a lane. When he reached the foul line, he gathered in the ball and turned to find the Kings' Otis Birdsong waiting for him. Davis wheeled and pumped and sent Birdsong flying. Then he spun on his right foot and turned into the waiting arms of the Kings' Reggie King. Davis feinted. King nearly fainted, and the 6'6" Davis soared toward the rim for an eight-foot bank shot that increased the Phoenix lead to 17 points. Lights out, K.C. "You get them so that they don't know what you're going to do next," Davis said. "That's my game—hurt them in that moment of indecision."

Davis wound up battering Kansas City to the tune of 22 points and seven assists in the 114-99 win that propelled the Suns into the semis against the Lakers. Davis' 57 points in the games with the Kings were four fewer than his equally gifted teammate, Paul Westphal, had during the series. But Davis presented the Kings with an acute defensive headache every time he came near the ball. Although Kansas City's Scott Wedman did an admirable job of guarding Davis, the pressure took its toll on Wedman's offensive performance. He had only one good shooting game, and on Sunday, when K.C. was getting buried during the first three periods, he was 4-for-15 from the floor. Phoenix Assistant Coach Al Bianchi posed the question that even Wedman must have been asking himself by the time the series was over: "How is a thick-legged white kid going to stay with Davis?"

And it wasn't just Davis doing the damage. The Suns sped to the hoop from every direction, while Kansas City was forced to rely almost exclusively on the outside jumpers of its three stars, Birdsong, Wedman and Phil Ford. "We've got to shoot the ball well," said K.C. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons before the rubber game. "If we don't, we're history." They didn't, and now they are.

The Kings hit only 42% of their shots Sunday, while Phoenix was canning 54%. Because Truck Robinson had strained ligaments in his left knee on Friday, disabling him for Sunday's game. Suns Coach John MacLeod was forced to start Jeff Cook in the finale. Cook, a 6'10" center-forward who played in the Western League in 1978-79, chipped in with 17 points (his regular-season average was 5.5), which was heartening considering that Robinson may miss part of the upcoming semis against L.A. MacLeod used backup Guard Mike Bratz, a 39% shooter for the season, almost interchangeably with starter Don Buse, and all Bratz did was knock in 17 of his 27 field-goal attempts. Perhaps as much as Davis, Bratz killed the Kings. In fact, the Phoenix bench was superior to Kansas City's in every department, including scoring, where it had a 41-20 series edge.

After Wednesday night's opener in Phoenix, an oddly dreary game that was more lopsided in the Suns' favor than the 96-93 score indicated, the winners tried to find nice things to say about the Kings. It wasn't easy.

Kansas City shot 25% from the field in the first period, failed to generate any kind of a running game and was behind by 17 points with just over four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Late in the game, with a touch of bravado, Kansas City Center Sam Lacey growled, "I'll see you Friday," in an unfriendly sort of way to Phoenix Center Alvan Adams. Adams didn't hear what Lacey said and asked him to repeat it. Lacey did, but again Adams couldn't quite make it out. The third time around, Lacey spoke so slowly and enunciated in such a stilted way that when Adams finally got the message, even Lacey had to laugh at the empty scabbard he found himself rattling.

Phoenix came into the mini-series with a string of five consecutive victories over the Kings, and after the Suns had stretched that to six on Wednesday, Friday's second game, in K.C, promised to summarily end Kansas City's season. "The teams are so much alike it's as if we're looking in a mirror when we play them," said Westphal. "The only difference is that we're a little bit better—and they don't have Walter Davis."

Bianchi was so sure the Suns would finish off Kansas City that he sent his family ahead to Los Angeles so that the wife and kiddies could be with him on Easter Sunday, when the Suns would have opened their best-of-seven series with the Lakers. And Bianchi was evidently not the only one who underestimated the Kings. Friday's game drew only 9,637 customers to Kemper Arena, the smallest crowd of the season there. That seemed to prove what Fitzsimmons had said a day earlier: "We're the fourth franchise in Kansas City. The Royals are number one, then the Chiefs, and number three is Tom Watson when it isn't snowing. Then us." Watson is from Kansas City; he wasn't at the game Friday, either.

Fitzsimmons knew that if the Kings were to have any chance of defeating Phoenix, his team would have to open the floor up—get its offense rolling before the Suns had a chance to settle into their defense—for its primary shooters, Wedman and Birdsong. He assigned Ford the task of getting things going. Ford had shouldered much of the blame for Kansas City's dismal 4-1 loss to Phoenix in the playoffs last year, and he hadn't performed well in the opener of this series. Fitzsimmons took Ford aside in the Kings' locker room Friday night and gently reminded him that he was the keystone of the Kings' offense. "I told him I didn't care if he scored a point," Fitzsimmons said later, "as long as he kept pushing the ball up the floor."

With Ford hustling from end to end for most of the first half, Birdsong hit five of his first seven shots and Wedman nine of 14 to put Kansas City ahead by as many as 23 points. By halftime, however, Phoenix had whittled that lead down to 14 points, and when Adams scored two of his 22 points on a running jumper in the lane late in the third period, the Suns went ahead 73-71.

On the next play, Ford, still not letting up, broke down the lane for a three-point play that put the Kings back in front 74-73. They would never relinquish that lead. Birdsong nailed his last five shots without a miss, and Wedman hit four of his last five. They finished with 30 and 32 points, respectively.

Despite the setback,' the Suns remained confident. "They have to go to Birdsong and Wedman when it's close," said Westphal, "so it's pretty easy to defend against them at the end of the game. Our team goes to Walter and me a lot, but we've got some other guys who we can give the ball to."

"There aren't too many teams who win by getting all their points from the outside," said Davis. "You've got to be able to go inside sometimes."

The Kings weren't able to do that Sunday, partly because the Suns played their best defense of the series, partly because Lacey banged up his left knee during the first two minutes of the game and was ineffective thereafter. On the offensive end, that meant the Kings had to let loose from outside, and what they were throwing up were mostly rocks. On the defensive end, it meant that K.C. had no one to get in Adams' way. He quietly went crazy, getting 20 rebounds and 19 points. Fitzsimmons nonetheless left Lacey in for 37 minutes. "He's the best I've got, limping or not," Cotton said.

Meanwhile, the best the Suns have got, Davis, just kept running, until he had turned back the Kings' last threat, until he had turned out the lights on K.C.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWestphal, here shooting over Wedman, was Phoenix' leading scorer in the mini-series with 61 points.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)