Lakers Let Season Trickle Away : Game 5: Magic Johnson scores 43, but the Suns come back from 15-point deficit to clinch series, 106-103.
There was no actual torch to pass Tuesday night, so Michael Cooper’s cross-court pass into the Phoenix Suns’ bench in the final seconds of Game 5 will have to do for a symbol.
The Suns, no doubt, will take it. Just as convincingly, they clinched the Western Conference best-of-seven semifinal series, four games to one, when they defeated the Lakers, 106-103, before 17,505 fans at the Forum.
Premature as their demise may seem to some, the Lakers appeared headed for a fall from Western Conference dominance since this series began. That it ended on their home court only added to the indignity for the Lakers.
The coup was first staged with a two-point victory at the Forum in Game 1 and completed Tuesday night, when point guard Kevin Johnson helped eliminate the Lakers with 37 points.
This was the Lakers’ earliest playoff exit since 1981, when they were ousted by the Houston Rockets in a three-game miniseries. While that playoff loss proved to be merely a temporary setback, this semifinal defeat seems a bigger blow to the Lakers’ dominance.
“I’m not going to say this is the end of the Lakers,” said Magic Johnson, whose second consecutive 43-point game could not delay the Lakers’ inevitable slide. “I come in every year with the same attitude, that we can win. People are going to say that about you every year.
“We just didn’t play the way we did when we won 63 games this (regular) season. I really can’t explain. I’m not feeling very well. I’m disappointed, frustrated, upset. I’m almost at the point where I’m gonna cry, and that’s the lowest I can get.”
The Suns may have been shedding tears, but they were from joy, not sorrow.
“What a difference a year makes,” Kevin Johnson said. “There’s no doubt a year ago, we would’ve lost our composure. We felt they were playing as well as they could. We felt we hadn’t thrown anything at them yet.”
If that is so, then either the Portland Trail Blazers or San Antonio Spurs will have quite a task when the Western Conference finals begin.
The Suns showed more than just composure. They had everything the Lakers didn’t have in this series, vital playoff ingredients such as balanced scoring, big plays at crucial moments and consistently dogged defense.
Kevin Johnson, the core around which the Suns revolve, started slowly in this series but finished fast. Johnson made 14 of 23 shots, nine of 10 free throws and had eight assists in the series clincher.
Neither Byron Scott nor Cooper could slow Johnson once he decided to penetrate. Laker players wondered afterward whether any one player is capable of harnessing Kevin Johnson.
“Once he gets a step on you, you might as well give it to him,” Laker forward James Worthy said. “Either he’ll get a layup or free throws.”
Worthy inadvertently left out one option--a pass to an open teammate. Johnson was more creative than any number of those Hollywood moguls that populate the courtside seats at the Forum.
He averaged 22 points and had 56 assists in the five games. Tuesday, Johnson, was the prime mover of the Suns, but he once again had a solid supporting cast.
Among those who did in the Lakers both Tuesday and throughout the series were:
--Center Mark West, who had another strong inside game and exposed the Lakers’ lack of muscle. West had 10 points and 16 assists, not quite as impressive as his 24-point performance in Game 1 but good enough to handle the Lakers’ center tandem of Vlade Divac, who got his first playoff start Tuesday, and Mychal Thompson.
--Off-guard Jeff Hornacek, who was rarely off his shooting touch in this series. Hornacek burned the Lakers for a career high 29 points in Game 3. Tuesday, he had 22, including sinking two free throws in the closing seconds.
Hornacek averaged 20 points and shot 52.2% for the series. He made the Lakers pay for leaving him open while attempting to double-team Kevin Johnson.
--Forward Tom Chambers, who usually folds like a tortilla when paired against Worthy, outplayed his counterpart in the series. Worthy, who made five of 21 shots in Game 4, had another bad game Tuesday. Guarded by Kurt Rambis and Chambers, Worthy made five of 19 shots this time.
Despite Magic Johnson’s exceptional play--he made 15 of 26 shots, just as he did in Game 4--the Lakers had to know they would be in trouble without a strong game from Worthy.
Unlike Game 4, when Worthy was swarmed over by Sun players in the low post, he had many open shots in Game 5. Still, they did not fall.
Worthy was as stupified as other Lakers about his poor last half of the series.
“I’m disappointed, but the effort was there,” Worthy said.
The Lakers, as one might expect from a veteran team with many championships under its belt, did not go quietly.
That 15-point first-half lead went pretty fast, as did a 95-90 lead with 3:58 left. But once the Suns completed a dizzying 10-point turnaround to take a 102-97 lead with 44 seconds left, the Lakers staged a last-minute comeback.
Scott made a three-point basket to cut the lead to 102-100 with 39 seconds left. The Suns worked the clock down before Hornacek missed a shot.
The Lakers got the rebound, and Magic Johnson turned upcourt. With eight seconds left, he made a 360-degree move and put up a left-handed shot from five feet that missed. Magic fought with Hornacek and West for the rebound, and the Laker guard fouled Hornacek.
Hornacek made both free throws for a 104-100 Suns’ lead, but Scott came back with another three-pointer, cutting it to 104-103 with 2.9 seconds left.
The Lakers quickly fouled Kevin Johnson, who made two free throws for a 106-103 lead with 2.4 seconds left. Then came Cooper’s pass out of bounds.
Despite Scott’s three-pointers, the Lakers received minimal outside scoring from their shooting guard. He averaged 13.2 points and shot 45.9% in the series.
Scott’s play certainly was not the Lakers’ only inadequacy. The Lakers’ inside game was not at all forceful. Thompson and Divac could not stop West, who played well but is not an elite center.
The Lakers, though not ready to permanently pass the torch of success, heaped praise on the Suns.
“They won the series; we didn’t give it to them,” Laker Coach Pat Riley said. “If they continue to play like they did against us, they will have a dream season. They are a great team. They beat a great team. We did not play the way we expected to, and I can’t say why, but they had a lot to do with it.”
Cotton Fitzsimmons, the Suns’ coach, finally admitted that his team outplayed the Lakers--at least in this series.
“I felt it would be 100-1 odds against us, with us having never won a the Forum before,” Fitzsimmons said. “But we kept our composure. To win two games at the Forum is unbelievable.”
As for the supposed changing of the guard, neither the Suns nor Lakers think it may only be temporary.
“I don’t think so,” Riley said, when asked if Tuesday signaled an end to an era. “I think we will read about it. We still have a lot of talent.”
Said the Suns’ Eddie Johnson: “We played like the Lakers. We run and play the wide-open game. But I don’t believe that. This was just our year to beat them. As long as they have Magic Johnson, they’ll be a great team.”
Laker forward A.C. Green, who suffered a deep bruise to his right thigh in Game 4 on Sunday, wore a protective pad and brace over the area Tuesday. “I’m alive, I’m playing,” Green said after receiving treatment an hour before tipoff. “It’s much better. I’ve had a couple days of good treatment.” . . . Vlade Divac, the Lakers’ Yugoslav-born center, said he will not participate for his country in the Goodwill Games in July. Divac, still a member of the Yugoslav national team, said he might play in the World Championships in Argentina this August. “I don’t think I’m going to play because next season, I want to play better here,” Divac said. “After this season, I need to rest.” . . . Orlando Woolridge, on his right shoulder tendinitis: “It bothers me sometimes when I extend to the basket. But once I’m out there playing, it doesn’t bother me that much.” . . . Chick Hearn’s daughter, Samantha, 41, was listed in serious condition at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, a hospital spokesperson said. The diagnosis of her condition was not released.
* Lakers: Riley says team may have let down after quest for NBA’s best regular-season record. Chris Baker’s story, C6.
* Suns: The Forum proved to be a perfect setting for Phoenix and Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. Randy Harvey’s story, C6.