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Suns Are Too Good to Be True : NBA playoffs: At least the Lakers <i> hope </i> Phoenix won’t be able to repeat its 117-103 victory when the teams play Game 4 today.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two more flops such as their 117-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns Saturday in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinal series, and the Lakers’ playoff hopes will be as barren as the desert here. The Lakers, who trail Phoenix, two games to one, in the best-of-seven series, face the Suns again today in Game 4 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Although the Lakers have been in such situations before, they might never have faced a team as talented as the Suns in such a situation.

Recovering from a 24-point loss at the Forum in Game 2, the Suns shot 60%, stifled the Lakers’ running and half-court offenses and wrested control of the series.

If Kevin Johnson wasn’t slashing through the lane on drives, Jeff Hornacek was sinking jump shots or Tom Chambers was scoring by every possible means. If Mark West was not blocking or altering Laker shots, Dan Majerle was alternatingly pestering James Worthy and Johnson.

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It was as dominating an exhibition for Phoenix as the Lakers’ blowout victory a game earlier. But the Lakers aren’t panicking.

“It’s not like a desperation time for us,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to come out and put everything out there. You’re definitely concerned, but it’s still early. It’s just 2-1. We can’t think of anything else.”

The Lakers could find only two bright spots:

1. They can recall the 1988 Utah series, which the Lakers trailed, two games to one. They won Game 4 by 13 points in Utah.

“I do have faith,” Laker Coach Pat Riley said. “I do, because we’ve experienced this before. We know what we have to do in a game when we’re down (in a series).”

But Mychal Thompson, Laker center, could not help adding a disclaimer.

“The Suns are a better team than that Utah team,” Thompson said. “This is going to be a tough series to win, but I think we will.”

2. The Lakers believe Phoenix can play no better than it did Saturday and that it will not be able to duplicate that performance.

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"(Saturday) was one of the best games any team can play,” Johnson said. “I mean, they hit 60-something percent of their shots. They had it all working, not just one man.”

Riley shook his head and said: “If they can play any better than this, we’re in real trouble.”

The Lakers are in trouble, anyway.

Kevin Johnson has shed whatever self-imposed limitations he had in the first two games. He had 22 points and 16 assists, consistently beating double-teams and showing absolutely no lingering effects of a hip injury.

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Johnson’s aggressive play made the Lakers alter their defense, leaving Chambers and Hornacek open for jump shots and drives. Chambers led all scorers with 34 points, but Hornacek was the designated Laker-killer.

Hornacek, the overlooked one in the Phoenix backcourt, made 10 of 16 shots for 29 points. He was guarded by Magic Johnson, who consistently left him to help Byron Scott tend to Kevin Johnson.

That strategy had worked for the Lakers in the past. But Hornacek might force Riley re-think his strategy.

Whenever the Suns needed a big basket Saturday, either Hornacek or Chambers obliged.

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“Hornacek was just in a groove for them,” Magic Johnson said. “He didn’t miss anything. That’s my job on defense (helping to double-team). That’s what they have me do. But when he’s shooting like that, oh man, what can you do? . . . And a lot of those shots came just at the (24-second clock) buzzer.”

One of those Hornacek buzzer-beaters sealed the victory. The Lakers spent most of the fourth quarter trying to pare the Phoenix lead--which reached 17 points late in the third quarter--but never cut it below 10.

Phoenix led by 11 points with 2:40 to play, and Hornacek launched a 20-footer simply to beat the clock. He made the shot, giving the Suns a 109-96 lead. A few seconds later, Riley conceded defeat by taking out Magic Johnson and James Worthy.

In the Suns’ 37-25 third-quarter assault, Hornacek had 11 points and Chambers 14.

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Chambers scored seven consecutive points during a 15-4 run that saw the Suns’ lead swell to 13 points. He rebounded Kevin Johnson’s missed drive and scored inside with 6:45 to play; sank a medium-range jump shot with 6:08 left; and, after retrieving a loose ball, made a three-point shot.

Hornacek did most of his damage late in the third quarter. Trailing, 78-66, the Lakers threw a half-court trap defense at Kevin Johnson. He passed to Hornacek, who drove untouched through the lane for a layup with 2:15 left. Hornacek sank a three-point shot on the Suns’ next possession and posted low and scored inside on the possession after that.

“Hornacek and Chambers were playing extremely well, and that was the critical part of the game,” Riley said. “I think people are starting to realize how valuable Jeff Hornacek is to that team. A lot of Jeff’s shots were coming off their penetration.”

As a result, Riley said he might have Magic Johnson stick with Hornacek rather than having him always double-team Kevin Johnson.

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However, Riley said the double-team strategy works against the Suns, providing the defenders quickly rotate back to their assigned man after stopping Kevin Johnson’s initial progress.

That didn’t happen Saturday.

“They are just too open for their shots,” Worthy said. “Hornacek and Chambers are getting too good of a look at the basket. Our effort is there, but we have to play quicker and smarter and rotate better.”

The Lakers got away with similar defensive strategies in the first two games because Kevin Johnson penetrated the Laker defense. Johnson let the Lakers know his game would be different when he opened the game with a driving layup past several defenders.

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“I was just more determined today,” Kevin Johnson said. “We looked back to a year ago when they put the trap on us, and we’d just get conservative and pass the ball around the perimeter. We learned now we have to be aggressive.”

The Suns’ aggressiveness also was transferred to their defense, which limited the Lakers to 47.6% shooting. The Lakers had four fast-break layups off made Phoenix baskets in the first half. But, in the second half, the Lakers had only one fast-break basket, by Worthy at the end of the third quarter.

Worthy had 27 points, but was pounded under the basket by the Suns’ aggressive defense. Johnson had 22 points, but made only seven of 18 shots.

“Defense normally is what wins for you, and our defense was certainly good today,” Sun Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said. “We were up by two at halftime without an offensive rebound in the first half. That was encouraging.”

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Not much was encouraging the Lakers. There were no declarations of a strong comeback today from any of the players.

“Sometimes, you got to give the other teams credit,” Worthy said. “We obviously have to play more consistent, but a lot of other teams in the West have gotten pretty good.”

Laker Notes

The Lakers, a significantly older team than the Suns, said playing games on consecutive days will not affect them. But they won’t have a day to practice any adjustments Coach Pat Riley might want to make. “Either way, it doesn’t matter, so we might as well just go out there and play,” Magic Johnson said. The last time the Lakers played playoff games on consecutive games was in 1982, when they did it twice. They beat the Suns in back-to-back games in the first round, then won games on consecutive days at San Antonio in the next round.

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Laker guard Michael Cooper, who had made one of 18 shots going into Game 3, made three of six Saturday. His first basket came on a 17-foot bank shot as he was falling down. Cooper on the difference between the Lakers’ being down, two games to one, against Utah in the 1988 playoffs and this series: “We don’t have Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) now. We don’t have that go-to guy.”


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