After proving they were capable of playing like mere mortals in a 135-127 overtime loss to the Phoenix Suns last Friday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, the Los Angeles Lakers quickly found what seemed like the entire Southwest trying to beat a path through their door. Before Sunday's Game 4 at Phoenix, the Lakers read an indictment of themselves by The Arizona Republic columnist Tom Fitzpatrick, who stated that the team in general and guard Magic Johnson and center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in particular were overrated. Then, in the first period, the Lakers found themselves being manhandled by the Suns, with burly forwards Maurice Lucas and Charles Pittman doing the bulk of the damage.
"When you're challenged like that, you can either meet it or back down from it," said Johnson. "If you back down, you're playing right into the other team's hands. You're in trouble when they see you can't take it."
After the game, there was no doubt that it was the Suns who were in deep trouble, not the Lakers. With Abdul-Jabbar scoring 31 points and Johnson putting in 20 to go with his 15 assists, L.A. beat Phoenix 126-115 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. "I know I don't play like no teenager," said Johnson, responding to Fitzpatrick's words. In dissecting Game 3, Fitzpatrick found Magic guilty of "infantile" shot selection as well as "ridiculous pass attempts that would cause a player of lesser reputation to be recalled immediately to the bench." As for Abdul-Jabbar, Fitzpatrick had written that given his "advanced" age of 37, "what's surprising is that he still is able to perform at all."
Mind you, no one else was writing such things about Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers, not with L.A. having coursed through the Western Conference playoffs almost with disdain. In their three-game, first-round sweep over Kansas City, their five-game romp over Dallas and their first four games against Phoenix, the Lakers have been nothing short of, you know, totally awesome, shooting almost 55% from the field and outscoring the opposition by more than 10 points a game. "Sometimes, what coaches put together as a game plan and what the players actually perceive and execute are two different things, but so far I don't think I've ever seen the two jibe better than with the Lakers," said Dave Wohl, one of coach Pat Riley's assistants. "It's like whoever's out on the floor is connected by computer to the bench, and Pat is at the control playing Pac-Man, saying 'O.K., you gobble him up and you go get him.' "
What has been surprising—given their run-and-gun reputation—is that the Lakers have been doing most of the gobbling on the defensive end, holding opponents to a 46.5 field-goal percentage.
According to Riley, the seeds for L.A.'s defensive prowess were planted in the preseason. "In training camp we were brilliant on defense, but when the season started we forgot how to play it," Riley says. "Now we've dedicated ourselves to forcing an almost chaotic, frenzied game on our opponents. We're in their faces, saying, 'Here I am, let's go. I ain't gonna go back downcourt and wait for you.' We're breaking the huddle early to go out and play defense."
The '84 Lakers have greater depth—defensively and offensively—than the 1982 Laker Great Eight that swept Phoenix and San Antonio en route to beating Philadelphia in six games for the NBA title. "That '82 team's bench was pretty much just Bob McAdoo and Michael Cooper," says Phoenix coach John MacLeod. "This season there's so, so much more." Indeed, the L.A. bench outscored the Phoenix reserves 211-105 in the first four games. Besides the 6'10" McAdoo, Riley can call on 6'6" Jamaal Wilkes, a former starting forward who's just rounding into shape after missing the first seven playoff games with a gastrointestinal infection; 6'4" rookie guard Byron Scott, a starter for part of the season; and 6'9" forward James Worthy, who would be a starter for almost every other NBA team. Little wonder the 6'7" Cooper, who now starts at forward, says that the L.A. starters "might beat the second team four games to three in a seven-game series."
This season's Lakers are not only deeper than the '82 team, they're also closer. Whereas" 12 Lakers, 12 cabs" was an apt description of L.A. in 1982, now there's a problem simply getting the players to a cab or bus, so intent are the mass H-O-R-S-E and card games.
About the only non-regular in those activities is Abdul-Jabbar, but the captain remains the unquestioned team leader. Johnson may be the Lakers' joy stick, but Abdul-Jabbar makes them tick. Troubled last season by a fire that destroyed his Bel Air home, along with his valuable Oriental rug collection and his 3,000 jazz albums, Kareem has found peace within himself and with his game. "The fire, and having to complete the season last year...it was just an ordeal," he says. "Compared to that, this season has been nothing. There's been pressure on me, but I felt that if I hung in there I'd do well enough. I think I've been all right."
Abdul-Jabbar hung in there just fine. On April 5 he broke Wilt Chamberlain's alltime scoring record. He also averaged 24 points over the Lakers' last 49 games, of which the team won 34. That upbeat play has continued in the playoffs; Kareem has averaged 23 points per game on 63% shooting—including a combined 24 of 33 in Games 3 and 4 at Phoenix. In addition, he has gotten double-figure rebounds in five of L.A.'s 12 playoff games. "He's playing with a lot more enthusiasm; he seems more pumped up every night," says Phoenix center James Edwards.
Breaking Wilt's record, which he did on the heels of the release of his insightful and revealing autobiography, Giant Steps, validated Abdul-Jabbar with the media and, thus, the public at large. "It seemed like I gained an immediate respect," he says. Nearly every media outlet wanted Kareem's reaction after he set the record, and it came as a surprise—given his disdain for attention—when he accommodated them. "He did Nightwatches, Nightlines, cable—everything," says Lakers public relations director Josh Rosenfeld. "He came in before games and stayed after them to do tapings. The only interview he declined was The CBS Morning News, which wanted him at 4:15 in the morning the day after he broke the record, when we had an 8 a.m. flight to catch and a game that night."
More important to Abdul-Jabbar, though, has been the response of his teammates. "Through the years, people would test him to see if he'd approve," Riley says. "Now there's total acceptance; he gets into things with the younger guys and has fun with them."
"That may be true, but seeing as how the only one on the team close to me in age is Pat [who's 39], I don't have much of a choice, do I?" Kareem asks facetiously. Still, things have changed tremendously from last May when, during a celebration of Wilkes's 30th birthday, Magic, the trigger man on a locker-room cream pie attack, missed Wilkes and deposited the cream on Kareem and his clothes in the adjoining locker. Abdul-Jabbar left in a huff. "I was more upset that I had to go home in my sweat suit than anything else," Abdul-Jabbar says. "But everything goes hand in hand. I probably wouldn't be as upset now, but then again, Earvin has matured a lot since then."
Note the proper noun, Earvin, as opposed to the descriptive adjective more commonly used when discussing Johnson. According to the Lakers, there's a difference between the two. "Some nights when he plays, it's frivolity: footloose and fancy free, that's Magic," Riley says. "Earvin is fundamental; it's substance, roots, family and character."
By that criterion, Game 2 against the Suns was a magical night for Earvin. Coming off a mere nine-assist performance in L.A.'s 110-94 victory in Game 1, Johnson passed for an NBA playoff-record 24 assists in the Lakers' 118-102 victory. Besides the 16-point margin of victory, the game was a carbon copy of the opener in that, after conceding the Suns a first-quarter lead, the Lakers used their bench and grinding defense to help unleash their fast break and take control. "You tell yourself to be conscious of getting back on defense after making a basket, but lots of times you aren't quick enough to do anything about it anyway," MacLeod said.
For the game, the Lakers scored 50 points on fast breaks and layups. "When we played Utah, there would be maybe three guys on the break," said a dazed Walter Davis, the outstanding Phoenix guard. "Against them, it's always four, unless Kareem is out of the game. Then it's five."
Among other things, MacLeod tried to change his team's luck in Game 3 by wearing the seersucker suit he had worn in the Suns' Game 4 win over the Jazz. "I had to pull out all the stops tonight," he said. The Suns did the same, using their own fast break to move out to a 42-31 first-quarter lead. But the Lakers' bench asserted itself, and, led by Scott's 10 second-quarter points, L.A. moved in front at the half, 64-62.
But instead of folding in the second half, Phoenix took control early in the third quarter, attaining an 87-77 lead with 4:17 remaining. And when L.A. did come back, the Suns held them off, with forward Larry Nance scoring a big hoop or gathering a timely rebound. The Suns also received help from two unlikely sources. Rookie Rod Foster, who was hitting a woeful 22% during the playoffs, scored five quick points, while backcourt mate Paul Westphal, who previously had been a non-factor, added five points and a pair of steals in a 42-second span of the fourth quarter.
Despite those heroics, the Lakers sent the game into overtime, missing a chance to pull out a victory in regulation when a Johnson pass that would have led to the winning basket trickled out of Kareem's hands with three seconds to play. In the overtime, three quick baskets by Kyle Macy assured the Suns' 135-127 victory. "I love playing against them," said Nance after his 23-point, 12-rebound high-wire performance. "The more they run the more we run, and that definitely makes me play better."
In Game 4, Nance levitated for 27 points, but they were of little help in the face of the Lakers' 60% shooting that Riley felt was partially influenced by the media.
"Is Tom Fitzpatrick here?" Riley asked afterward. "You're talking about two of the greatest players of all time, and for someone to take shots at them is incredible. I think they were a little motivated today."
Or perhaps just slightly more than merely mortal.