The Phoenix suns were a few long steps from their first NBA title, and the Los Angeles Lakers were a few short steps from the graveyard, when they began their all-but-predetermined Western Conference first-round playoff series last week in Phoenix. But two of the most unlikely results in playoff history pumped life into the Lakers—call them Team Resurrection—and pushed Phoenix perilously close to a premature Sun-set.
In the opener of the best-of-five series at the America West Arena on Friday, L.A. stunned Phoenix, the league's best team during the regular season, with a 107-103 victory to become the first No. 8 seed to win a playoff game on the road since the league went to a 16-team postseason format in 1984. Two days later the Lakers' 86-81 come-from-behind shocker, also in Phoenix, made them only the second eighth seed to win two games, home or away, against a No. 1 seed.
The first game was a major surprise; the second, nothing less than a minor miracle. Going into the 1992-93 postseason, No. 8 seeds had won only seven of 61 games against No. 1's. Furthermore, the Phoenix- Los Angeles series was not exactly a likely candidate to go against form. The Suns had won all five of their regular-season meetings with the Lakers, and the teams appeared to represent polar opposites on the emotional barometer, with the chest-thumping Suns on top and the cheerless Lakers on the bottom.
This season Phoenix's clubhouse was the loosest in the NBA, peopled by a fascinating cast of characters: Calm, cool and collected first-year coach Paul Westphal; talented point guard Kevin Johnson; seasoned playoff veteran Danny Ainge; hungry guard Dan Majerle; and, of course, Charles Barkley, a man all but owed a championship ring by the basketball gods. The Lakers? You couldn't twirl a yo-yo around their locker room without hitting a dead man. Rookie coach Randy Pfund was reportedly on his way out, the knowledge he gained as a Laker assistant for seven years, five of them under Pat Riley, obscured by his apparent inability to motivate his players. (One scenario, which all parties deny, has Magic Johnson replacing him next season.) Small forward James Worthy, 32, was a shadow of his former All-Star self, and shooting guard Byron Scott, also 32, wasn't even that. Center Vlade Divac was, as usual, set to be trade bait at the end of the postseason—when the going gets tough, said the pundits, the Yugo would be a no-go. As for point guard Sedale Threatt, he had the major drawback of not being Magic.
How to explain, then, the events that turned the Suns' new arena into a chamber of horrors for the hometown heroes? Here's the succinct version: In Game 1, Threatt happened, and in Game 2, Barkley did not. The opener did have a degree of logic to it. KJ, Phoenix's quarterback, was sidelined by an injured left knee, which he had twisted and bruised during a chest-thumping celebration with Barkley on April 22. So Threatt, Johnson's counterpart, went ballistic, scoring 35 points. Scott, too, had an outstanding game, finishing with 22 points. Thus when Barkley was asked for his postgame assessment, he responded with one word: "Guards."
Majerle and Ainge, Phoenix's long-range bombers, converted only one of 11 three-point attempts between them. All told, the Sun backcourt was outscored 67-31. Just think how bad things would've been for Phoenix if broadcaster Magic, who would be on hand for Game 2 of the series, had been wearing a purple-and-gold uniform instead of a headset.
On Sunday it wasn't the guards that extinguished the Suns. It was Barkley. He wound up with 18 points and 21 rebounds but missed all seven of his shots in the fourth period, during which the Suns didn't score a basket in the final 5:54. Said Charles, "I couldn't hit nothing."
But are there deeper reasons to explain the events in Phoenix? Perhaps playoff experience is a good place to start. Besides Ainge, who had played in 149 postseason games before the series, and Barkley (51), the Suns were babes when it came to playoff pressure. The other 10 Suns had played in a combined 233 postseason games.
By contrast, Worthy had played in 138 playoff games, Scott in 137, war-horse power forward A.C. Green in 98. Even Threatt had seen action in 44 postseason games during his checkered 10-year career with four teams. "We have guys on this team [the aforementioned trio, Pfund and center James Edwards] with championship rings," said Divac after Game 2. "I think it helped. They are battle-tested."
Maybe the Suns' relative lack of playoff experience helps explain some of those moments in both Games 1 and 2 when the Suns played like wooden soldiers instead of loosey-goosey front-runners. With time running out in Game 2 and Phoenix trailing 84-81, Westphal screamed at his players to press, but they sat back and allowed the Lakers to advance the ball unchallenged to midcourt. Then, after L.A. called a timeout, Scott hit a 16-foot jumper to ice the game.