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Either Way, the Truth Hurts : NBA playoffs: Suns’ Kevin Johnson is playing as though he is in pain, but he denies hip is injured.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At his best, Kevin Johnson is little more than a blur on the court. One instant, he has the ball at the top of the key, the next, he materializes deep in the lane to pass or shoot. Defenders often are left grasping at air and calling for help.

But Johnson, the most important component in the Phoenix Suns’ motion offense, has been unusually easy to spot in the first two games of the NBA Western Conference semifinal series against the Lakers, which resumes today with Game 3 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Those quick bursts to the basket have been stifled. Still dangerous in the open court, the Suns’ point guard has not found much room to roam. So far, he has been reduced to a perimeter passer, one reason the series is tied instead of led by the Suns.

Johnson has not been at his best in this series, although he spent most of Friday telling reporters that his sore right hip is fine and that he simply is trying to involve his teammates in the offense.

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Johnson has made seven of 19 shots, averaged 10.5 points and 12 assists in the series. He was particularly ineffective in Game 2; eight of his 12 shots were from the perimeter and he made only one basket on a drive, that in the fourth quarter when the Lakers led by 22 points. He missed his only fast-break layup.

The Laker defense, headed by guard Byron Scott, has been partly responsible. But Johnson might be feeling the hip injury more than he is letting on.

Before Game 2, Sun Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons confirmed that Johnson was in pain after bumping Utah’s Mark Eaton in Game 4 of that first-round series. Fitzsimmons said Johnson would have to play through it and shift the offensive focus to others.

But when Johnson denied that he was injured, Fitzsimmons acknowledged that he must have been mistaken.

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“Kevin says he’s fine, so he’s fine,” Fitzsimmons said. “If Kevin’s fine, then the Lakers are doing a great job on him.”

Johnson was adamant Wednesday about not blaming the injury for his performance.

“It’s not the hip. It’s fine. Honest,” he said.

But Fitzsimmons told the Phoenix Gazette that he has noticed a change in Johnson.

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“I don’t know what’s wrong with Kevin, but I intend to find out,” Fitzsimmons said. “He just isn’t doing the things we want him to do. He says he feels fine, but he hasn’t been practicing lately, and it’s hard to stay sharp when you can’t practice.

“I know he thinks he’s been playing well, but I believe he’ll change his mind when I show him some film . . . “

In last spring’s Western Conference finals, the Lakers devised an intricate defensive strategy, double-teaming Johnson as soon as he crossed mid-court. Then, after he had passed off, the Lakers kept hounding him to ensure he would not get the ball back and drive to the basket.

It worked only to the extent that Johnson was exhausted by the fourth quarter of every game. He still averaged 23.3 points and 53% shooting.

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In this series, however, Scott and Michael Cooper have not gotten help until Johnson has reached the key. Then, Laker big men converge. But Johnson has rarely made it past Scott or Cooper, the first line of defense, in the first two games.

Johnson said he takes what the defense will give and does not force the drive. He said he has changed his game so that he is looking to pass more than shoot.

But he also credited Scott for dogged defense and the Lakers’ rebounding for reducing Phoenix’s fast-break opportunities.

“I think they are doing a good job of everything, especially guarding me as soon as I get the ball,” Johnson said. “More important than Michael Cooper and Byron Scott playing man-to-man defense is the fact that everybody is so aware of the penetration and whatnot.

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“I just have to make sure I can get everyone else involved in the offense and try to create certain things. That may lead to a bad shot here and there, but I think it’ll hopefully put a lot of pressure on L.A. That’s what we got to do more of.”

Said Scott: “I’m trying to pick him up sooner. Instead of waiting for him at the top of the key, I get him in the backcourt. I think we’re keeping an eye on him a little more than last year.”

Johnson, after conferring with Fitzsimmons, said he will try to take a stronger offensive role in Game 3, acknowledging that he has to take more than nine shots a game for the Suns to win.

“I was taking what they gave me, but the things I created were for my teammates,” Johnson said. “I have to continue to do that, but also create a thing or two for myself. There’s always a fine line, and I can’t be out of control and take bad shots. I’ve got to be a little more aggressive. That may not mean 20 points, but it may mean big points at crucial times or whatnot.”

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Completing his third NBA season, Johnson, 24, also said he is trying to pace himself. In last season’s conference finals against the Lakers, Johnson played so hard in the first half of Game 2 that he was too tired to come out for warmups before the second half. “There’s no doubt, from a fan and media’s point of view, last year against the Lakers I had a very good series,” Johnson said. “Statistically and whatnot. But we lost. That just shows me and our team that one guy playing well is not what’s going to beat the Lakers.

“I think I’ve matured a great deal, and that’s why I realize that for me to go out and score 30 points is not what’s going to help the team. I have a better understanding of the game and what it takes for the team to be successful. . . .

“I read where (Laker Coach Pat) Riley was talking about Worthy and Earvin (Johnson) pacing themselves to a certain degree, but they never go lightly. They know when to push it and when to rest, so I’m trying to learn that. Even this season, I’ve learned a great deal. You can play 40 minutes extremely hard, but there’s a certain time to rest and whatnot, even during the game.”

Some Lakers have speculated that Johnson’s hip injury has bothered him, although he does not limp and does not seem to favor the area.

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“It does look like he’s a step slower,” Cooper said. “Whether it’s because of the hip pointer or what we’re doing, I don’t know. Hopefully, we’ll continue to do a good job on him and wear him down.”

Scott disagreed.

“I don’t think he looks a step slower,” he said. “It’s the defense.”

Randy Pfund, the Lakers’ assistant coach in charge of defense, said that if Johnson is not slowed by the injury, then the Suns’ offense strategy is unusual. The Lakers, Pfund said, fully expected Johnson to drive whenever possible.

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“There appears to be something different about him,” Pfund said. “He hasn’t forced us to do those things (trap, double-team) as much as last year. . . . He’s looking to drive and kick (pass off) and not score.

“It’s curious, I’d say. Maybe (Johnson is hurt). But I think it’s very possible they could’ve made the conscious decision that (since) they lost seven or eight games to us last year with him driving all the time, they’d try something different. We’ll see what we get the next game.”

Laker Notes

Sun forward Tom Chambers has made 37.8% of his shots and is averaging 17.5 points. Laker Coach Pat Riley said stopping Chambers and Eddie Johnson, who has an 11-point average on 40% shooting, is as important as controlling Kevin Johnson. “We asked James (Worthy) to get up in (Chambers’) face and stop him early, and that’s important,” Riley said. “They’ve got a lot of weapons, and you can’t stop them all without giving up something else. But Eddie’s one guy you can’t give open jumpers to. He’ll knock down three-pointers all day. I have a lot of respect for him.”

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Riley says he hopes to play both Larry Drew, subbing for Magic Johnson, and Michael Cooper, for Byron Scott, today. Cooper has made only one of 18 shots. Drew has played only 30 minutes in the playoffs. “Michael’s not shooting the ball very well, and we’ve got to have both those guys hit the open shots,” Riley said. “But I thought Mike did a good job on defense against (Kevin Johnson), especially in the first game.”

The teams will play games on consecutive days, a playoff rarity. Both said they do not mind playing Game 3 today and Game 4 Sunday. “I like it,” Riley said. “I hate waiting. I think it’s good for us. I hate spending two or three days in a city waiting to play.” Kevin Johnson thinks it will help the younger Suns. “It’ll hurt the Lakers,” Johnson said, laughing, “All those old guys over there.”

Kevin Johnson said the Suns are expecting to return to Los Angeles for Game 5 leading the series, three games to one. “We’re in a great position to come in and try to establish our home court,” he said. “We feel nobody should beat us in our arena.”


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