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NBA PLAYOFFS : Sundown Comes Early in Phoenix : Lakers Sweep Into NBA Finals Again, 122-117

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Somewhere out there probably lives an opponent who can beat the Lakers, for a game or maybe even an entire National Basketball Assn. playoff series, though that team’s whereabouts have yet to be located.

It could turn up in Chicago or Detroit, and it could happen as early as next week. But it most certainly was not the Phoenix Suns, the latest challenger to be swept aside posthaste by a Laker team said to be playing as well as any of their predecessors this decade.

Sunday, in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, the Lakers completed the four-game eclipse of the Suns with a 122-117 victory that improved their playoff record to 11-0 and sent observers searching for comparable teams.

They advance to the NBA finals for the seventh time in the last eight seasons. They also join the 1982 Lakers as the only teams ever to head into the finals undefeated.

Basketball historian that he is, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reached into the past and plucked a pretty good team from memory, one that conceivably could match or surpass the Lakers in winning streaks and versatility.

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“Yeah, the Bruins, man,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

That would be the UCLA team of the late ‘60s that lost only one game during Abdul-Jabbar’s time.

All right, so that comparison is a stretch.

But the Lakers are playing at a level hardly anyone thought them capable of anymore.

“Always in control,” Magic Johnson said. “This team never--I don’t know what the word is to describe it--never gets scared. We just say, ‘OK, let’s make the play and win the game.’ We always felt in control.”

Even though they are near the top of their game, it took nearly all the Lakers had to beat the Suns, led by Tom Chambers’ 41 points, in Game 4.

They got it from Byron Scott, who had 35 points including his three three-point baskets, from Johnson, who had 21 points and 20 assists, from Worthy, who had 20 points and eight rebounds and from the reserves, Orlando Woolridge, Michael Cooper and Mychal Thompson.

Woolridge, playing well after a disappointing regular-season, scored 14 points, made six of 10 shots, had seven rebounds and five blocked shots. Cooper sank two three-point baskets and continued to play well defensively against Sun point guard Kevin Johnson, who had 22 points.

Wanting to avoid a poor start, as in Game 4 of the Seattle series, the Lakers sprinted to an 11-0 lead in the game’s first two minutes.

And, wanting to finish off the series rather than waiting to try to win it at home Tuesday, the Lakers sank 10 consecutive free throws in the final 1:07 after allowing the Suns to slash a 12-point deficit to two.

“Right now, it’s just our time,” Riley said. “There is no explaining it, really. I think we’d be tough for anyone to beat in a seven-game series. I think now, our guys are proving they want to win as badly as ever.

“Each and every game, (the Lakers) have played singularly. They haven’t looked ahead. To me, the mark of character is not coming back after being down. It’s playing like we did today, maintaining it. They took care of business today.”

The Lakers’ early surge went like this: an Abdul-Jabbar hook shot, a Phoenix turnover, a fast-break layup by Scott, a Phoenix turnover, a fast-break basket by A.C. Green, a blocked shot, a Scott jump shot, a missed Sun shot, and a three-point basket by Scott.

Finally, 2 1/2 minutes into the game, the Suns scored when Mark West dunked. That turned out to be the start of a 16-3 Phoenix run that gave the Suns a 16-14 lead with 5:02 left.

That was Phoenix’s last lead of the game. The Lakers then proceeded with a 10-0 run, highlighted by two fast-break layups by Worthy and Cooper’s three-point basket.

Only in the fourth quarter did the Suns seriously challenge again.

After the Lakers had taken a 106-94 lead with 5:25 to play, the Suns outscored them 11-2. Included in that stretch were three Laker turnovers--two by Johnson and one by Worthy.

But whenever the Suns surged, the Lakers responded, quickly increasing their lead from three to seven.

The few defensive mistakes the Lakers made came in the final two minutes. Phoenix came within 112-108 when Chambers completed a three-point play after being fouled by Johnson.

Then the Suns would get three-point baskets from Dan Majerle and Eddie Johnson and a three-point play by Kevin Johnson in the final minute, getting as close as 116-114 with 53 seconds left. But the Lakers’ free throws clinched it.

“We just made the plays,” Magic Johnson said. “We made a couple of mental mistakes . . . but we corrected it from there. Today, they kept coming back, coming back. But we made the plays.”

Worthy said he was concerned about the Lakers’ defensive mistakes in the fourth quarter, which led to 17 of Chambers’ 41 points and which almost led to a Laker loss.

Almost.

“We’ve been in battles before, and we know down the stretch we have to make the plays,” Worthy said. “We never panic. Now, today, we did make some mental mistakes and that almost cost us. But we did a good job of executing when we absolutely had to.”

The Lakers expect nothing less from Scott, who made 13-of-18 shots and the other starters. But the play of Woolridge has been a bonus.

“Orlando has been our MVP in this series,” said reserve center Mychal Thompson, who added nine points. “Well, Magic is always our MVP, but Orlando has done everything we’ve asked him to. More than that. He’s been the difference.”

The Lakers’ defense didn’t hurt, either. The Suns made 47.9% of their shots Sunday, which was a good day for them. Chambers finally scored the way the Suns’ faithful had expected, making 17-of-28 shots and grabbing 13 rebounds.

But the Lakers’ strategy was to shut off at least two of the Suns’ three main scorers. Kevin Johnson was contained, finishing with 22 points and 10 assists. And sixth man Eddie Johnson made just six of 14 shots, shooting poorly from the start of the series to the finish.

Phoenix shot just 46.8% for the series. Eddie Johnson made just 32.7% of his shots and Chambers needed a hot hand Sunday to boost his to 43.6% for the series.

“What they concentrated on was shutting down Tom and myself,” Eddie Johnson said. “You have to give them credit. They did a great job of denying me the ball. I couldn’t come off the picks and catch the ball with any rhythm. Usually, they were switching out there and had a guy in my face.”

Added Kevin Johnson: “On defense, they really stuck together and sucked it up. When you play a team in a seven-game series, you become familiar with them. So, they really had a chance to focus on us.”

Said Magic Johnson: “In this series, the difference for them was that they’ve never played the Lakers’ playoff team before,” he said. “They’ve seen what it is all about right now.”

Said Scott: “Nobody expected us even to make it this far. This was one of those years where we’ve been written off from the start. But we never thought that.”

Truth be told, though, the Lakers also never thought they would be undefeated in the playoffs going into the championship series.

“Yeah, we never thought we’d sweep Phoenix,” Scott said. “We didn’t think we’d sweep Seattle, either. It just happens.”

Laker Notes

Laker Coach Pat Riley on his preferred opponent, either Chicago or Detroit in the finals: “I would say I’d only prefer Chicago because it gives us the home-court advantage. It’s not as if we feel we can beat them easier. Both teams are tough.” . . . The earliest the finals can start will be Sunday. Riley gave the Lakers a day off today and probably will take the team to Santa Barbara for a “mini-training camp” later in the week. . . . Dating back to the last five games of the regular season, the Lakers have won 16 consecutive games. . . . Riley has 98 career playoff coaching victories. He needs one more to tie Red Auerbach, the all-time leader with 99.

RIDING OFF INTO THE SUNSET

The Phoenix Suns, yet another NBA team of the future bites the dust. Scott Ostler’s column, Page 9.

WESTERN CONFERENCE SERIES AT A GLANCE LAKERS vs. SUNS

BEST OF SEVEN

Lakers win best-of-seven, 4-0

RESULTS

Game 1 Lakers 127, Suns 119 Game 2 Lakers 101, Suns 95 Game 3 Lakers 110, Suns 107 Game 4 Lakers 122, Suns 117


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