Sam Lacey was relaxing in the Phoenix moonlight, trying very hard to look like an ingenue. It had been hours since the Phoenix Suns had dealt the Kansas City Kings a crushing 102-80 defeat in the opening game of their Western Conference semifinal series of the NBA playoffs, and now Lacey was sitting disconsolately in the hotel Jacuzzi while a woman he had never seen tried to guess his age. Lacey is the Kings' starting center, and though he's only 33, he has the look of such an ancient warrior that K.C. Guard Phil Ford claims Lacey once performed in the old Negro leagues. Steam rose from Lacey's aching knees as the woman studied his face. "Twenty-three," she said. Someone suggested she take a closer look. "You mean he's not 23?" she asked. Lacey rose from the swirling water and called for silence. "If this lady believes I'm 23," he said, "then it must be so. You must never question a true believer."
Lacey knows whereof he speaks, for he and his teammates were themselves the truest of true believers. That night the Kings had lost not only a game but also their leading scorer and only healthy starting guard—Ford having been injured in February—when Otis Birdsong crumpled to the floor of Veteran's Memorial Coliseum with a sprained right ankle. Birdsong, a 24.6-per-game scorer, would be lost for the duration of the series. Yet the Kings' faith in themselves wasn't shaken. Last week this bedrock confidence helped K.C. spin three remarkable victories—Game 2 in Phoenix and Games 3 and 4 at home on the weekend—and build a commanding 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven series.
The Kings were on the verge of more than a mere upset. It was almost as if what was unfolding was some kind of vindication of the work ethic, an endangered species in the NBA. With or without Birdsong, the Kings didn't seem to belong on the same floor with Phoenix. The Suns had cruised into the playoffs by winning 57 games and the Pacific Division title. The Kings, who had a 40-42 record, had to beat Dallas, the worst team in the league, on the final day of the regular season to edge Golden State for a playoff spot. "We've had a lot of problems," said K.C. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, "but we hung tough."
To his credit, Fitzsimmons got good mileage out of those problems, turning each new setback into a challenge. "After the first game in Phoenix, I had to reach back and draw on all my coaching experience to convince the players they could win," he says. 'Now they believe."
April 20, 1981
Phoenix appeared to be in control following the opener, though there were portents of what was to come even in that lopsided game. Until the Suns finally got their running game untracked by scoring 10 unanswered points to take a 71-56 lead in the third quarter, Kansas City had set the kind of slow, plodding tempo the Kings must play to survive. Once Phoenix started to fast-break, the middle of the floor opened up, and the Suns went serenely about their business offensively, running their precision patterns with delicacy and finesse.
Phoenix Coach John MacLeod, who has a deep bench and uses it, was euphoric over the Suns' play in Game 1, and he seemed unconcerned about any possible psychological reversals following Birdsong's injury. "This club is as mentally well prepared as any I've had since 1976," MacLeod said, referring to the Suns team that went to the NBA finals, losing a classic series to Boston. "I don't see any chance of a letdown."
At the Kings' hotel that night, forwards Reggie King and Leon Douglas went over the K.C. loss in their room until 5 a.m. "We were so upset we couldn't sleep," King says. "We just talked about the game. It was embarrassing to get beat that way. We didn't want that to happen again. Ever."
Fitzsimmons decided to move Forward Scott Wedman to Birdsong's position, where he would join Ernie Grunfeld in one of the most peculiar backcourts in memory. Wedman is 6'7", 233 pounds and not a particularly adept ball handler. Grunfeld had become the Kings' 6'6", 222-pound point guard when Ford had surgery after he was accidentally poked in the eye during a collision with Golden State's Lloyd Free. Wedman was having his worst shooting year (.477) since the 1976-77 season, and Grunfeld admitted that he was "probably the slowest guy on the team."
It is instructive—if not entirely fair—to note that the Kings were 8-3 in the regular season when Birdsong was out with various injuries, and that Fitzsimmons considers him one of his most expendable starters. After Ford, Fitzsimmons most prizes Lacey and then King. "That's not a knock at Otis," says Fitzsimmons, "but we struggled when he was on a scoring tear early in the season, and some of our best games came while he was injured. Somebody else can pick up the slack in scoring. But we have nobody who can do for us what Ford and Lacey do."
In Game 2 in Phoenix, the Kings clawed, grabbed, kicked and somehow hung on until the start of the third quarter, when Phoenix opened a 10-point lead by again cranking up its running game. But something went slightly askew for the Suns this time. The Kings, who would shoot only 22% in the period, slowed the game down again, and at the start of the fourth quarter they found themselves down by just two points. Wedman, who played all but 38 seconds of the game, took over for K.C. offensively, scoring 24 points and grabbing nine rebounds. King sealed Kansas City's 88-83 victory with a baseline turnaround that fell through just as the 24-second clock expired in the game's final minute. Grunfeld, too, came through: 19 points, five rebounds, eight assists and five steals. "Maybe they didn't know the character of this team," said Lacey. "We've got the slowest backcourt in the league, and the way we play we're probably killing CBS's ratings. But we don't quit."
Phoenix was clearly frustrated by K.C.'s slowdown style. "They were more aggressive than we were," said Dennis Johnson, who finished the second game with 31 points but was the only Sun to hit double figures. Truck Robinson, who was 4 for 13 from the floor and scored a mere 10 points in the opener, had only two points on 1-for-8 shooting in Game 2 and seven points on 2-for-6 shooting in Game 3. Robinson and Walter Davis had been the big guns for Phoenix all season, but Robinson suddenly became the big Truck that couldn't, and Davis began to disappear. He played only 27 minutes in Game 2 and 26 in Game 3, scoring seven and 17 points, respectively. Though Davis continued to pay lip service to MacLeod's shuttle substitution policy, privately he complained that he was not playing enough.
"The Suns are caught up in what's happening," Fitzsimmons said. "The pressure's all on them. There's none on us; we're living in a fairy-tale world. They're tight and they've got to be talking to themselves."
Fitzsimmons had been realistic about his team's chances going into the series, but he had also seen a flaw in the Suns' mental armor. "I don't think they're quite as cocky now as they were when the series began," he said.
Game 3 may have been the most important of the four because its result—93-92 K.C.—showed that the Kings' victory in Phoenix had been for real. Wedman hit the deciding basket from 16 feet with nine seconds to play, and finished with 22 points; King played a terrific second half and had 29 points and 11 rebounds, eight of them offensive. "I wasn't getting anything going playing under control," said King, "so I just went erratic out there." Said Fitzsimmons, "The ball went up on the board, and Reggie went after it like a young one should."
"The first game was the fluke in this series," said Alvan Adams, the Suns' 6'9", 212-pound center, following Game 3. "We're to the point now where we're concerned. We have to win on Sunday."
That the Kings pulled out yet another shocker in Game 4, this time 102-95, was partly a result of something else Adams had pointed out. "Both their guards weigh more than I do," he said. "They're very big." Moreover, with K.C. starting Lacey (6'10", 250 pounds), Douglas (6'10", 242 pounds) and King (6'6", 244 pounds) up front, along with its all-Hulk backcourt, the Kings whipped Phoenix on the boards, thus preventing the Suns from generating many fast-break opportunities.
Most of the Suns refused to concede that Kansas City played any harder than they had, but the Kings had noticed that the Phoenix style seemed to be to glide through games. "I tell you what," said Lacey late Friday night. "They glide two more games, they may be gliding on home." On Sunday, the count was down to one.