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.