First-year coach Mike Dunleavy came to the Los Angeles Lakers with a master plan. At the start of the season he installed his defense, a lane-jamming amalgam of helping out and hard work. Then he put in his half-court offense, a post-up-and-pass-around attack that could spread the floor to devastating effect. Lastly, he sought to put the show back in Showtime, assuming that point guard Magic Johnson could once again give the Lakers the highest-glitz running game in the NBA. In theory, it was all to come together by the playoffs. In practice, it has. With a 116-95 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday at the Forum, L.A. seized a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals. "If you draw up a game," said Johnson, "you want to draw it up like this."
The Lakers' half-court offense left the Blazers scrambling in Game 4, looking for all the world like some poor souls who had been caught in a hurricane and couldn't decide which window to close first. If Portland double-teamed Magic or forward James Worthy down low, guard Byron Scott found himself open to drill jump shots; if Portland threw a conventional defense at L.A., it usually resulted in an instant deuce for the Lakers.
For the Blazers, a usually reliable defense wasn't the only thing that suddenly went wrong. L.A. outraced Portland for loose balls and beat a steadier path to the free throw line. The Blazer rebounding game, vital to their offense, was matched almost board for board by the Lakers. Repeatedly taking bad shots, the Blazers mustered those 95 points on 44.4% shooting after averaging 114.7 points in the regular season.
Entering Game 4, the Lakers had Portland on the run. The Blazers had blown a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter—not to mention the home court advantage—in a 111-106 Game 1 loss, and they had lost Game 3 in L.A. 106-92. Portland was losing ground on other fronts as well. Two local heroes, Portland coach Rick Adelman and ex-Blazer center Bill Walton, wrote dueling columns in The Oregonian. Walton on Adelman: "Basketball is a simple game, often overcoached and under-taught." Adelman: "What exactly does this mean? There seems to be a contradiction in his statements, and the generalities are an affront to any person who has attempted to coach."
But Game 2 in Portland on May 21 was a dazzling reminder of how the Blazers can rise to the occasion, not to mention above the rim. On that night the Blazers rebounded with ferocity (a 51-28 wipeout on the boards), ran at will (27 fast-break points to two for L.A.) and attacked with abandon (a 21-11 edge in free throws) in their 109-98 victory. The Lakers couldn't overcome Portland's performance with their usually precise execution; in the fourth quarter, Magic turned the ball over three times, and the normally deadeye Scott took only one shot. Nevertheless, with 2:30 remaining, the Lakers trailed only by 100-96. "After all those things we didn't do right, we were still right there to do something," Johnson said. "But we didn't."
And Portland did. Mammoth center Kevin Duckworth started one key break with a steal, saving the ball and, with some acrobatics, one fan's bone structure by staying inbounds. "I'm not going to have to pay nobody's doctor bills," the 7-foot, 275-pound Duckworth said later. Forward Buck Williams harassed Johnson near midcourt, springing up to double-team him the moment Magic turned his back to the basket, then scampered back to his own man. "You have to be aggressive because you want him to have to make split-second decisions," Williams said. "That's the only way he's going to make turnovers." And Blazer guard Clyde Drexler, in typically antigravitational fashion, soared for a crucial fourth-quarter stickback when the score was 95-89. "That was a huge play," Adelman said.
As the last Blazers dressed at their lockers after the game, they were clearly feeling they had flexed some muscle. Williams called to Drexler, "You went for that rebound like a man tonight." Drexler called back to Williams, "I was just following your lead."
The assertiveness of Laker center Vlade Divac, meanwhile, was a welcome development for L.A. In the first two games Divac had only 21 points and four rebounds, and he had been unable—some thought unwilling—to fight for position underneath. "He can either go over to the bench and sit by Mike," said Scott, "or go out there and stand up for himself." But Divac, who will never be seen hunched over heavy iron on Venice Beach, is the obvious choice for Portland to pick on. He has only 21 games of playoff experience; his four fellow starters have a combined 524. "Vlade's going to respond to the challenge," said L.A. forward A.C. Green last Thursday. "The worst thing you can probably do is get him all riled up. That has yet to be seen."
Green, an All-Star starter last season and a Laker reserve this year, was hardly seen in Game 2; his three minutes of court time were the least he had played in a game in which he wasn't injured since grade school. With the Lakers getting bludgeoned on the boards, Dunleavy figured to use Green more in Friday's Game 3. In the first of his 26 minutes, Green flattened Blazer guard Terry Porter on a baseline pick and went on to rack up nine rebounds and nine points. More important, by constantly contesting on the offensive boards, Green stopped the Blazers' running game. "That's the old A.C.," said Laker swingman Terry Teagle.
True to Green's prediction, Divac, too, came to life in Game 3. Divac's teammates, who are prone to berate him, gave him encouragement, while Dunleavy came to his defense. "It's always easier to point at somebody when you should be looking in the mirror," Dunleavy said. With the Lakers leading 43-40 at the half, Divac erupted for 10 points, a steal and a block in an 18-7 run to start the third quarter. That put the game on ice. L.A.'s forecourt of Divac (16 points, 7 boards), Worthy (25 and 7) and Sam Perkins (18 and 9) also effectively clogged the middle to thwart the charges of Portland's slashing players while throttling the Blazers' front three, who, combined, had a measly 10 for 36 from the floor.
The Game 3 blowout also underscored the relative strengths of the two teams' half-court attacks. L.A. has at least three post-up options to go to at all times, a gifted outside threat to spread the floor in Scott and the best passer ever to dissect the defense in Johnson. Portland, on the other hand, gets little scoring in the post and must often rely on retrieving its own misses in a sort of multidirectional tip drill for points. "I've been with this team for a year, and I don't know what we're doing half the time offensively," says guard Danny Ainge. "It's just kind of a wild, reckless-abandon offense. Whatever it is, it usually works."
But through Sunday, Portland's recklessness was causing the Blazers' hopes for a repeat appearance in the NBA Finals to ebb. The Lakers, on the other hand, were functioning with metronomic reliability. "I'm not going to let things get crazy or erratic," Johnson said. "We've stuck to the game plan, and it works."