Given historical perspective, perhaps the memory of Magic Johnson’s latest last-second heroics Sunday night at the Forum will fade and its importance in the Lakers’ scheme of things will diminish.
But, from a Laker viewpoint, the most recent Johnson game-winning shot is always the best. Until, that is, it is replaced by the next.
This one was classic Johnson, a routine performed with only minor variation so many times over the years. With the Lakers and Phoenix Suns tied, 116-116, with 20 seconds to play, the Lakers put the ball in Johnson’s hands and simply let him create.
With defensive specialist T.R. Dunn shadowing him, Johnson broke free to receive Michael Cooper’s inbounds pass, dribbled the clock down to four seconds with his back turned to the basket. Then, apparently feeling it was time for action, Johnson dipped his shoulder into Dunn, spun and sent a 15-foot jump shot skyward.
It fell through the net just as the buzzer sounded, setting off a raucous celebration of a 118-116 Laker victory among the 17,505 in attendance. Johnson, however, savored the moment in typical fashion, briefly waving his fist, then sprinting off the court post haste.
Recalling the final play a few minutes later, Johnson shrugged as if it was nothing special. “This guy just called out five, four, three and I shot it,” Johnson said, jokingly. “Nah. It was a pick-and-roll with James (Worthy), where we planned to go in it with about 10 seconds to go. But I wanted to see what the defense did. They didn’t double-team, so I told James to clear out and I started backing in.
“I faked like I was going to the left, then he (Dunn) went that way and I had the shot.”
And, it turned out, the Lakers had a victory, in no small part because of Johnson. He had 34 points, 10 rebounds and 18 assists, his 15th triple-double of the season and second straight.
And, for the moment, Sunday’s victory seemed as important to the Lakers (47-20) as Johnson’s shot seemed impressive.
For the first time since the 1981-82 season, the Lakers are locked in a Pacific Division race. The Suns (44-25), seemingly impossible to shake, trailed the Lakers by three games coming in to a home-and-home series that concludes Tuesday night in Phoenix, where the Lakers have not won this season.
“This was a very important game,” Laker Coach Pat Riley said. “I’m sure they probably felt this was the biggest game of the year for them. If they win tonight and then in Phoenix, and they’re in position.”
Instead, the Suns return home four games behind the Lakers. They still have not won a game in the Forum since 1984 and probably are wondering what kind of effort it will take to do so.
Trailing by 12 points in the third quarter, the Suns embarked on an impressive run that enabled them to take a 110-106 lead with 2:25 to play.
But then came the Laker comeback culminated by Johnson’s latest last-second salvage operation.
This is the third time this season that Johnson has either won a game for the Lakers or sent it into overtime by way of a last-second shot. His three-point shot in double overtime gave the Lakers a victory at Denver in November. And, against Washington in December, he sank a three-point shot nearly from midcourt to send the game into overtime, where the Lakers dominated.
Phoenix’s first mistake was to let Johnson receive the inbounds pass. But, as Sun Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said afterward, it is not easy to deny Johnson the ball when it is his will.
“We’d like to do that, but Magic’s got the biggest arms in the league,” Fitzsimmons said. “Like I said the last time we were here, he runs the league. He can do whatever he wants.”
Not even Johnson has that kind of autonomy. But he can be dominating, with suitable support from his teammates.
“You can say you aren’t going to let him get it,” Riley said, “but I guarantee you, he would have eventually gotten the ball anyway. T.R. gave him everything he could. But you just put the ball in Buck’s hands and watch him make something happen. He’s the guy.”
Dunn, brought in after a Laker timeout to stop Johnson, said that he played about as well as he could in such a situation.
“It was a tough shot, but he’s capable of making it,” Dunn said. “You just try to keep him outside as much as possible. But he’s made them before. He’s been there before, but I’ve been there before, too. I’ve seen some go in and some go out.”
Even Dunn didn’t seem too surprised that Johnson’s went in.
The only surprise, at least in the eyes of some Lakers, was that the Suns decided to play Johnson one-on-one for the final shot. Fitzsimmons said he did not double-team Johnson because it would leave a Laker open for a shot.
"(Johnson) can create a lot of things,” said Byron Scott, who had 25 points to go with Johnson’s 34 and Worthy’s 26. " He’s probably the last person in the league you’d want to take the last shot. You can’t play straight up on him, he’ll shoot over you.”
The Suns apparently were aware of all that, yet had faith that Dunn would not be done in.
“Everyone in the building knew who was going to control the last seconds and take the shot,” said Eddie Johnson, who led the Suns with 29 points off the bench. “T.R. played excellent defense on the play, but Magic made the shot. You’ve got to give him credit.”
The Lakers gave Johnson kudos for not only the last-second shot but also, along with Scott, credit for the late run that reversed Phoenix’s 110-106 lead.
The comeback began when Johnson drew a foul while driving through the lane and sank two free throws. The Suns’ Kevin Johnson, who had 26 points, answered by making a jump shot to reclaim the four-point lead.
But then Scott split Tom Chambers and Dan Majerle and sank a jump shot while drawing a foul. He converted the free throw to trim Phoenix’s lead to 112-111.
However, Kevin Johnson sank another jump shot with 1:32 to play, giving Phoenix a 114-111 lead. This time, it was Magic Johnson who converted a three-point play with 1:25 left that pulled the Lakers even, 114-114. Johnson drove through the right side of the lane, drawing a foul from Tyrone Corbin while flicking in a layup. He, too, made the free throw.
The Laker defense, which effectively shut down Phoenix’s two Johnson and Chambers in the first half, then made a late stand. Majerle, desperate to shoot with the shot-clock dwindling, missed a three-point attempt with 1:05 to play. Scott gave the Lakers their first lead in four minutes, 116-114, when he sank a jumper from the corner.
After an exchange of possessions, Eddie Johnson sank a jump shot from the deep corner with 20 seconds to play, Kevin Johnson making it possible with a cross-court pass while falling down.
But the Lakers had the ball and time for a final shot, situations by which Magic Johnson lore is perpetuated.
“You kind of expect that from him, especially with the ball in his hands,” Scott said. “Ninety five percent of the time, he’ll do one of three things: one, pass off for an open basket; two, draw the foul and make the free throws; or three, make the shot.”