It is generally conceded that the way to stop the Lakers’ fast break is to stop Magic Johnson, which as the Phoenix Suns’ Maurice Lucas suggested early in the playoffs, could best be accomplished by abducting him before the game.
There is, however, a more conventional method of stopping Johnson, one made popular by the Philadelphia 76ers when they swept the Lakers in the championship series two seasons ago.
What the 76ers did, and what the Portland Trail Blazers and most other teams still try to do, is send a defender at Johnson as soon as he gets the ball on the outlet pass, then harass him while he advances upcourt.
It is something like a one-man press. The idea is to make Johnson work very hard on the dribble, tire him and slow the fast break. Although the strategy has no official name, it might be referred to as the too-pooped-to-pass defense.
Now that there is a Game 5 in the Western Conference semifinal playoff series between the Lakers and Trail Blazers tonight, Johnson once again can expect to look up and see Darnell Valentine in his very immediate future.
“In my face,” Johnson said. “It don’t matter. I’m used to it by now.”
With a victory tonight at the Forum, the Lakers can send the Trail Blazers packing and get on to the conference final, where the next team, the Denver Nuggets or Utah Jazz, will throw the same kind of defense at Johnson, who knows all about the book on him.
It was written by 76er Coach Billy Cunningham, and when the book was published, its main character was defensive specialist Maurice Cheeks. Boston’s Dennis Johnson assumed the role in last season’s championship series, and now it’s Valentine’s day.
But Laker Coach Pat Riley believes it won’t necessarily be Valentine’s day.
“People feel that it’s a great way to stop our break,” Riley said. “It’s a fatigue situation for both players, for Magic and the player guarding him. The whole idea is to wear him down . . . to pound him. But it isn’t the easiest thing to do. Magic’s been able to adapt.”
Everyone realizes that the Lakers have tied their existence to how well they fast-break. Although the Lakers even like to run after the other team makes a basket, they run best on missed shots.
Those misses create circumstances that do not allow the same kind of defensive pressure on Johnson that the book calls for. They allow Johnson to be a speed reader.
So, if the Lakers want to prevent Johnson from feeling too much defensive heat by Valentine, their own defense must force the Trail Blazers into missed shots.
“Valentine has done a good job of trying to deny Magic his outlet,” Riley said. “Magic has to work hard and try to blow by him. But say they miss their shots, and then Valentine comes up to get Magic. Valentine, the point guard, is supposed to be their defense against the fast break, so who’s back for them?”
The Trail Blazers not only made their shots Sunday at Portland, they also retreated well enough on defense to mess up the Lakers just enough to beat them.
The 115-107 Portland victory is the only playoff game the Lakers have lost in seven, the previous six having looked pretty much the same to the Lakers, who were able to run away with their fast break.
If the pace is slower, which is what the Trail Blazers hope, more attention is naturally drawn to Johnson and the type of defense he attracts, pro basketball’s version of the bump-and-run.
Based on what he has seen since the 76ers began defending against him that way, Johnson said he is prepared for a counter-proposal.
“I just take it to them and take it to the hoop,” he said. “I’ll always take a beating because of our running style. I know that. Other teams have been playing me like that for a while now. But you know, the only way I can go is up.
“When it first happened, I went down,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Oh, oh, what is this?’ But since Philly, all the teams are doing it. They feel like it’s the best way to wear me out.”
Riley still wants the ball in Johnson’s hands as often as possible, but he has taken some of the pressure off Johnson by using Michael Cooper as the point guard when Johnson sits down, and letting Byron Scott take the outlet pass on occasion.
“I also know that when you have other people bring it up, you can get out of sync sometimes,” Riley said.
So Johnson will continue to initiate the offense, as always, and Valentine will be with him all the way. How well they do their jobs may not only determine whether this series will end tonight, but also whether Johnson has turned the page in the book he has already read many times.
Tipoff for tonight’s Game 5 is 7:30 at the Forum. It will be televised by WTBS, but a Forum spokesman said it is supposed to be blacked out in metropolitan Los Angeles if it is not a sellout. About 2,000 tickets remained Monday night, the spokesman said. ON-TV is not televising the game. . . . Game 6, if there is one, will be at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Portland. . . . Trail Blazer forward-center Mychal Thompson said that avoiding a Laker sweep was a boost to team pride. “You don’t want to get walked over,” he said. “But it’s still a one-game series for us.”. . . If both the Lakers and Nuggets win tonight, eliminating Portland and Utah, the first game of the Laker-Denver conference final would be either Saturday or Sunday at the Forum.