The Los Angeles lakers must watch where they walk these days, for the terrain around them is littered with erstwhile title contenders. Cleveland, Atlanta, Utah and Birdless Boston were all bounced from the playoffs in the first round. Dallas, the veteran team that extended L.A. to seven games in last year's Western Conference final, didn't even make it that far, having finished the season down in Lottery Land.
And the latest hopeful to make a thud? The tough and tenacious Seattle SuperSonics, the Western Conference version of the bad-boy Detroit Pistons. The Lakers completed a four-game second-round sweep of the Sonics on Sunday afternoon in Seattle with an improbable 97-95 victory. The Lakers were losing 41-12—that's right, by 29 points—early in the second quarter, but they kept chipping away at the Sonics' lead and won on some clutch sharpshooting by A. C. Green, their most uncertain offensive player.
"Heart of a champion," said Mychal Thompson, tapping his chest. "That's the reason we won."
Over in the Seattle locker room the feeling was shock tinged with admiration. "Far as I can see they haven't missed a beat," Seattle guard Dale Ellis said. Or, as L.A. coach Pat Riley put it, the Lakers were "focused," the latest in his growing lexicon of buzzwords.
And focused they were. A third straight NBA title is still eight wins away, but the Lakers seem to have stepped up their game a notch, drawing energy from their postseason experience. As guard Michael Cooper puts it: "This is our time of year."
The Lakers did not look so formidable during the regular season, however. Sure, they finished with the best record (57-25) in the West, as they have for the last eight seasons, but they struggled and sputtered along the way, particularly during a 7-7 stretch from March 19 to April 15. "We're the back-to-back world champions, and we haven't been walking it, talking it or showing it," Riley said after the Lakers blew out the Nuggets 142-118 in Los Angeles on April 18. New, different and even more interesting teams, like the Phoenix Suns, rose on the Western horizon, and there was a rush to embrace them. "The Lakers are still a great team, but Phoenix is the epitome of a team playing on top of its game," said Denver coach Doug Moe the night of the lopsided loss in L.A.
The Lakers, whose antennae are out for that sort of sniping to begin with, no doubt sensed they were not getting the respect due a two-time defending champion. But it was hard to tell. The Lakers tend to keep their strongest opinions to themselves. They operate something like a grand jury, taking care of any controversial team business behind closed doors. "We have standards and procedures on this team," said Riley, "and rarely does anyone violate them."
If the Lakers' timing and tempo were thrown off by the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retirement tour—their record was 13-12 in "ceremony games"—certainly no one said it. Abdul-Jabbar was unfailingly polite and well-spoken, if not always enthusiastic, along the farewell trail. It ended with him in possession of more CDs than Tower Records, a 24-foot sailboat called Cap's Sky Hook (from Golden State), a gold and white Harley-Davidson motorcycle (from Milwaukee) and a white '89 Rolls-Royce (from the Lakers). Certainly the inconsistent play of the 42-year-old pivotman—or, more accurately, the constant questions from the media about his play—was a distraction, too. In January, Abdul-Jabbar was playing so poorly that Riley considered benching him, and even in the last half of the season, after Abdul-Jabbar found a second wind, the Lakers were never sure what he would give them. He averaged 10.1 points and 4.5 rebounds for the season.
Thompson (9.2 points, 5.8 rebounds) was more than equal to the task of spelling Abdul-Jabbar—or, because Thompson played 300 more minutes than the starter, would it be more accurate to say that Abdul-Jabbar held down the fort long enough for Thompson to check into the game?—but the rest of L.A.'s bench was inconsistent, particularly Orlando Woolridge. The Lakers were hoping that their bargain-basement ($500,000) acquisition of the 6'9" free agent forward would make them a little deeper (more like, say, the Pistons) and provide an insurance policy for James Worthy and his aching knees. Fortunately for L.A., Worthy didn't need it. Woolridge has shown flashes of brilliance, but then Flashes could be this guy's middle name. Though he is still not a player with whom Riley feels entirely comfortable in the clutch, the Lakers value his size and quickness in their trapping defense, the most underrated aspect of their game.
The consistency of Worthy (20.5 points), Green (13.3 points, a team-high nine rebounds per game) and, most of all. Magic (22.5 points, 12.8 assists, 7.9 rebounds. 17 triple-doubles) enabled L.A. to stay just ahead of the Western pack. Each year Magic adds something: a back-to-the-basket postup game one year, the "junior, junior skyhook" another, a scorer's mentality yet another. This season Magic decided to be a long-distance marksman, and so he attempted 188 three-pointers, converting 59 for a respectable .319 percentage. Consider where he has come from: In 1982-83, he was 0 for 21 from beyond the three-point line. While he was at it, Magic also won the NBA's free throw shooting title (making 513 of 563 for .911), not bad for a guy who was supposed to lack a shooting touch when he came into the league 10 years ago. Moreover, Magic proved that he could play without the goatee that he has worn ever since, as he says, "there was something to wear." He awoke one morning about six weeks ago, applied the shaving cream for his usual trim around the edges and just decided to "go all the way."
Which is exactly what was on the Lakers' minds when they began the postseason with a sweep of Portland. That was to be expected; the underachieving Trail Blazers (39-43 in the regular season) should have been excused from the playoffs with a note from their parents. Seattle seemed to be another matter, though, a restless, feisty group that had beaten the Lakers twice in six tries during the season. One thing was certain: The sluggin' Sonics would make the Lakers pay for every basket.
Cooper, who describes himself as "the team masochist," had prepared for a head-knocking series long before it began. On April 27, hours before the playoff opener against Portland, he slammed headfirst into a steel and plywood partition just off the Forum court as he ran off the floor after a shootaround. The cut on his forehead required 21 stitches to close, and Thompson commiserated by calling him Scarface. But Cooper played that night, and his teammates like to think that any of them would have done the same. Nothing makes the Lakers madder than the oft-stated claim that they are softies who shy away from contact, and the Seattle series, they knew, would be a test of their toughness.
They definitely passed it in Game 1 on May 7 at the Forum. Seattle came out hard—"Three of our first four guys who went in for layups got hit in the face," claimed Cooper—but L.A. finished harder, using a strong third period to coast to a 113-102 victory. Abdul-Jabbar had 16 points and a zero-rebound line that was offset by the strong board work of Worthy (12 rebounds) and Green (10). Worthy also had 28 points and was stellar on defense, containing Ellis to 19 points, seven in the second half. Putting small forward Worthy on a guard is a ploy that Riley has used before, and it usually works because Worthy is quick enough to cover guards in the open court, and Magic is big enough to move down and cover forwards.
The Sonics returned to Seattle for two days of practice between Games 1 and 2, but the northwest air hardly invigorated them. L.A. took command at the outset of the May 10 game at the Forum and never let up in a 130-108 victory. Worthy made his first eight shots (he finished with 30 points), and Green, the only L.A. starter who is rarely double-covered, scored 14 of his 16 points in the third period. To make matters worse for Seattle, point guard Nate McMillan sprained his left ankle when he landed on Abdul-Jabbar's foot seven minutes into the game. "Nate was the lucky one," said Seattle coach Bernie Bicker-staff afterward. "The only safe place tonight was in the locker room."
Bickerstaff is a lot like Riley, a sharp dresser, a perspicacious observer of the game and a man who frequently hides his white-hot intensity with humor. And—make no mistake about it—Bickerstaff was not taking the losses lightly, nor were his Sonics. Friday night's Game 3 in Seattle would not make them feel any more sanguine about the series.
The Lakers led by as many as 15 points in the fourth period before Seattle began a furious comeback with eight minutes left. It was strange to watch the normally imperturbable Magic commit turnover after turnover (he had nine) against the frantic trapping pressure of—get this—Avery Johnson, a free-agent rookie guard who stands only 5'10", and little-used Jerry Reynolds. "I kept saying to myself, Man, this isn't me, not playing like this," Johnson said after the game. "And that disappointment made me try to do more, and then I played even worse." The Lakers didn't score a field goal over the final 7:38, in fact, but held on to win 91-86 after they converted 10 straight free throws down the stretch.
And so, going into Game 4, the Lakers had won pretty, and they had won ugly. All that remained was for them to win dramatically, and that mission was accomplished when Green hit a key 18-foot jump shot with 31 seconds left, then added four free throws in the final nine seconds. The question is: Was the game an aberration or was the comeback something that the Lakers can feed on for the Western final? "Definitely something we can feed on," said Worthy, who had 33 points. "This is the team I'm accustomed to playing with. The team that refuses to get embarrassed. We didn't always play like that during the season, but we're definitely playing that way now."
The devastating defeat left Seattle—a team that has made numerous personnel moves during the past two seasons in an effort to catch the big boys—in a quandary. Can the Sonics depend on the continued maturation of Ellis, McMillan and forwards Xavier McDaniel and Derrick McKey? Or must they make a big move for an established center or point guard, perhaps using one of their two first-round picks as a bargaining chip in this June's draft? McKey, Ellis and McDaniel were the only Sonics to score in Sunday's game until center Alton Lister made a free throw at 6:58 of the third period. The big three finished with 84 of the Sonics' 95 points.
The Lakers face no such decisions, not yet at least. Logic suggests that if they make it to the finals for the eighth time since 1980—"It's been our decade, and we want to end it that way," says Cooper—they will not have enough left to win it all, especially if the Pistons, who extended them to seven games last year, are the final roadblock. But the Lakers have heard negative talk before. And at week's end they were still focused, still hungry, and still tiptoeing around the bodies of all those others who would be king.