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Richard Hoffer
May 21, 1990
Unlikely heroes helped the upstart Suns push the Lakers to the brink of extinction
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May 21, 1990

Dynasty On The Edge

Unlikely heroes helped the upstart Suns push the Lakers to the brink of extinction

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As if it weren't enough that Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the host Phoenix Suns was televised back to L.A., an additional feed was piped into the American Pavilion in Cannes, France. This, the NBA announced, was to satisfy "the great interest in this series in the Hollywood community." Yet the fare was undoubtedly too vulgar for those artier members of the community who were attending the Cannes International Film Festival. It would be best to file it alongside Earthquake, the disaster movie also featuring the destruction of several Los Angeles institutions.

By losing Games 3 and 4 over the weekend in Phoenix by a total of 27 points, the Lakers fell behind 3-1 in the series and headed back to the Forum for a game Tuesday night that could result in their extinction. Not even Dino De Laurentiis would have dreamed of foisting such an unlikely calamity on the Los Angeles viewing public; after all, the Lakers have been to the NBA Finals eight of the last 10 years, have won five league championships and have been death to the Suns, sweeping them from the postseason in 1985 and again last year. Although the team of the '80s began the new decade without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—its first season without him since '74—this was not a franchise in obvious decline. On the contrary, L.A. had the best record, 63-19, in the NBA this season.

Yet anybody who watched the Suns manhandle the Lakers 114-101 on Sunday had to wonder whether Los Angeles hadn't suddenly become old, or suddenly become bad. The Lakers looked as rattled as rookies. At one point in the second quarter, an inbounds pass from A.C. Green sailed over Larry Drew and nearly conked center Mychal Thompson on the head. Near the end of the half, only Magic Johnson seemed aware that the clock was running down, so he pleaded for Green to shoot. Green didn't. L.A.'s Mr. Consistency, James Worthy, who had shot terribly (9 for 26) in the Lakers' loss at home in Game 1, had another poor outing, making only five of 21 field-goal attempts. For a team with such glowing credentials, Los Angeles's lack of composure was astonishing.

Charlton Heston, please report to the scorer's table.

Among the Lakers the alarm was palpable following Sunday's defeat. After their 117-103 loss in Game 3 last Saturday, it was still possible for them to inspire themselves by citing precedent. In 1988 they had trailed the Utah Jazz 2-1 in the conference semifinals before winning in seven games and going on to win the NBA title. However, being down 3-1 was uncharted waters for this group. The '69-70 Lakers escaped from a 3-1 hole to eliminate the Suns in the first round and become one of only four teams in NBA history to accomplish that feat.

"It's nervous time," said L.A.'s Michael Cooper on Sunday. "There are beads of sweat on our foreheads." Magic had to agree, quibbling only over words. Asked if the situation was scary, he said, "I wouldn't say scary, more like desperate."

The Suns, meanwhile, were drawing confidence from some unlikely sources. Guard Jeff Hornacek, once a walk-on at Iowa State, scored 23 points in Game 4 as an encore to his out-of-his-mind 29-point burst the day before. "Wouldn't it be sweet," Hornacek asked Kevin Johnson, the Suns' splendid point guard, as they showered, "to wrap this up in Los Angeles?"

How had Phoenix come to harbor such expectations? Cotton Fitzsimmons, who was the NBA Coach of the Year last season after turning a 28-54 team into a 55-27 contender, has the luxury of experience these days. Except for former Laker cult figure Kurt Rambis, whom the Suns acquired from the Charlotte Hornets during the season, Fitzsimmons's starters are guys who went through last year's playoffs. "We learned from last year," said Kevin Johnson. "Last year we got caught up in all the hype, being on CBS, worrying about how to dress for the playoffs."

At least one person should keep worrying. The series began with Fitzsimmons—who is not in Riley's league sartorially—wearing a white cotton golf shirt given to him at the arena by Sun trainer Joe Proski. Fitzsimmons had left his own shirt at the hotel. Phoenix hadn't won in the Forum in 24 games, dating back to the 1983-84 season, and Fitzsimmons hadn't had a victory there in 37 games, going back to the Nixon Administration, when he coached the Atlanta Hawks. After the Suns' 104-102 Game 1 win, Fitzsimmons credited the shirt for this unlikely turn of events and vowed to wear it forever.

But another improbable hero, Phoenix center Mark West, deserved some mention, too. Before the start of the series, the Suns' Johnson, grown wise beyond his 24 years, tried to inspire West, a veteran of seven nondescript seasons, by challenging him to be "emotional" against Los Angeles. "He said it was unnatural for him," said KJ, "but I said all of us have to do things that might be a little out of character, do more than we're used to doing, to give the team an edge."

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