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.
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."