He was wearing a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt, and there was something vaguely NFL about the way he was talking about winning games with defense, but the voice was unmistakably that of Earvin (Magic) Johnson. He had just watched on the TV in his Phoenix hotel room as the Detroit Pistons went down in the flames of Michael Jordan's offensive fire storm in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, and yet here was Johnson clucking about what his Los Angeles Lakers would do to either the Pistons or the Jordans...with, uh, defense. Magic said the Lakers plan to sit on the ball: "Anytime it's a low-scoring game, it's to our advantage." He was not kidding. "The key to us is our defense," he said.
This is an article from the June 5, 1989 issue
The Lakers were then on the verge of completing their four-game sweep of the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals—which they did with a 122-117 win on Sunday—and while there was still some doubt about whom they would face in the NBA Finals, one thing was certain. Whichever team it is will find that, though the Lakers' faces may look familiar, their game has changed. With little fanfare, Los Angeles has transformed itself from the fast-breaking team that has already won five championships in this decade.
"The Lakers are not the running team we knew in the early '80s," says Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "In the second game, we shot a low percentage and turned the ball over 18 times and they scored 101 points. Four or five years ago they would have scored 145.
"Not that they can't explode," Fitzsimmons adds. "But during the season they came into our building and scored 96, 97 and 104—that's not the Laker fast break we all knew. I think they now use the running game as a psychological weapon. You come into a game fearful of them because you know what they can do. They've refined their game and developed into a great half-court team. Now they kill you by getting tremendous shots, and they're able to do that because they've still got the best guy at finding the open man."
That would be Magic, who brought the Lakers' running game with him to L.A. 10 seasons ago and has only grudgingly conceded that the Showtime offense—like his youth—was a fleeting thing. "We always want to run, but teams started slowing us down and they made us be better at that," Magic said. "Before, if we couldn't get the easy layup, we might get frustrated. But Kareem not being the dominant factor he once was has forced us to be a better half-court team."
There is a good deal of irony in this, because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may have been the greatest half-court player in the history of the game. It is a measure of how much things have changed in L.A. that when he sat down with his fourth foul midway through the third quarter of Game 2 and never returned, no one even mentioned his absence in the Laker locker room after the game.
Magic will turn 30 (30!) this summer, and while he and his teammates have dedicated themselves to sending Abdul-Jabbar into retirement with a third consecutive championship, Johnson is equally driven by the thought that this could be his last dance in the Finals. Forward-center Mychal Thompson is 34 and guard Michael Cooper is 33, and the NBA is suddenly rich with talented young teams like Phoenix.
Against the Suns, Magic averaged 20.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 14.3 assists, including a 35-foot jump hook at the end of the first quarter of Game 3 (a 110-107 win) and 20 assists in the Game 4 clincher. "It's always Magic," Fitzsimmons says. "He has a very nice cast of characters around him, but he's still the one who makes them all look good. He will not let them lose."
Because they do lose so seldom, it is hard to fathom why the Lakers feel so persecuted. And yet, year after year they get themselves lathered up at playoff time over some supposed show of disrespect by teams like the Suns. "We've heard all season that the Phoenix Suns want us," said guard Byron Scott before the series began. "Well, they've got us."
The Lakers also have not forgotten the impertinence of the Detroit Pistons, who took them to seven games in last year's championship series. And they will no doubt find some way to work up a collective grudge against Michael Jordan, whom Magic edged out for the league's MVP award. "There are times we feel challenged," says forward James Worthy. "I don't think too many teams respect us, so they talk as if they're supposed to beat us."
Last season the Lakers became the first team in NBA history to win three seven-game series en route to a title. This year they have won a record 11 consecutive playoff games, against Portland, Seattle and the Suns—16 wins in a row if you count their five at the end of the regular season—and they appear to be peaking at precisely the right moment.
The L.A. bench, which performed erratically all season, came alive during the Phoenix series. Cooper helped win Game 2 (101-95) by smothering Kevin Johnson, the Suns' explosive point guard, from baseline to baseline after Johnson had rung up 18 points and six assists in the first half; Cooper came back on Friday to hit four straight three-pointers in Game 3. Thompson also helped put Phoenix away in that game with five free throws in the final 2:25, while the Lakers were clinging to a dwindling lead. But the sight that no doubt quickened the hearts of the Laker faithful most was forward Orlando Woolridge finally looking as if he fit in.
Woolridge, who became a free agent after going through drug rehab while playing for New Jersey last season, had never really found his place on the Lakers. L.A. coach Pat Riley had kept him on the bench for four games in a five-game span in early April. "I think that was a message," Woolridge says. "So I took an inventory of myself and my game to see what I needed to change. It took me a long time to learn to do the intangible things that help a team win."
Woolridge didn't begin to click until the waning moments of Game 1, after the Suns had drawn to within five points with two minutes to play. After a missed shot, Woolridge knifed through the lane, took a pass from Thompson, rammed in a dunk and made a free throw to help salt away a 127-119 victory. "He went from being a home run hitter to a guy who will take a walk, go for a single," said Riley. When Woolridge came up with 10 points, five rebounds, and three blocked shots while logging 14 minutes in Game 2, Riley acknowledged that Woolridge was the difference. "We were dead in the mud offensively, and Orlando gave us some life," he said. "Without him we don't win."
Cooper insisted last week that "for this team now, Showtime happens on defense," and, indeed, the Lakers were almost insufferably pleased with themselves to be leading the way into this brave (and slightly boring) new world. Riley had his two assistants, Bill Bertka and Randy Pfund, looking at videotape into the wee hours every morning, breaking down the Suns' offense, looking for ways to refine the Laker defense. Through the conference finals, Laker opponents averaged a combined 104.5 points per game.
The Laker D that accomplished this looked a lot like a zone. Zones are still not legal in the NBA, of course, so Fitzsimmons and his two assistant coaches spent a lot of time complaining to the refs. But in fact the Lakers were simply matching the Suns' 1-2-2 formation with one of their own. The primary victims of all this defensive subterfuge were Sun forward Eddie Johnson, winner of the league's Sixth Man Award, and Kevin Johnson, recently named the NBA's most improved player. "They basically stopped us," said Eddie Johnson, who averaged 22.4 points a game against the Lakers in the regular season—the teams split six games—and then shot .328 in the series, averaging 11.5 points.
As for Kevin Johnson, Riley had rookie David Rivers imitate him in Laker practices, and he charged Cooper with the task of stopping KJ. By the end of the week, Cooper could barely walk. "I have calluses building up to my ankles," he said. For long stretches of the second and third games, though, Cooper simply made Johnson disappear.
The usually exuberant KJ was so drained just getting ready for the Lakers that he rarely had much left for the actual games. For days he carried around notes on how to defend Scott, and the pressure weighed on him. "We're expending a lot of energy, not on the court but in approaching these games," Johnson said. "It's taking a lot out of us. But for the Lakers it's a way of life."
After breaking loose repeatedly in the first half of Game 2, KJ was apparently so tired that he didn't go out onto the floor with his teammates before the third quarter, but sat in the Suns' locker room until the horn sounded. "That was a shock to all of us," Fitzsimmons said. "I have never seen Kevin play with less energy than he did in the second half of that game. I think it was all psychological." Johnson missed the only two shots he took in the second half, and finished with four points and seven turnovers after intermission. "By the second half, I'd had it, I was dead," he said later. With the Suns' two Johnsons off their games, forward Tom Chambers was able to find little operating room inside and shot only .364 in the first three games before erupting for 41 points in Game 4.
It was a particularly galling way to end the season for Fitzsimmons, who was named Coach of the Year in the midst of his team's collapse last week. Fitzsimmons-coached teams have not won at the Forum since Feb. 17, 1974, a period covering 35 games, 15 seasons and five teams (Hawks, Buffalo Braves, Kings, Spurs and Suns). "What is it about the Forum?" he asked, running his fingers through a thatch of blond hair after Game 2. "I don't know. Maybe it's haunted."