To relax at halftime of what might have been the last game of their season, the Phoenix Suns told each other jokes.
They then proceeded to have a laugh at the expense of the Lakers, rolling to a 101-86 victory at the Forum on Thursday night to extend their series to a decisive fifth game Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Phoenix's America West Arena.
"I feel we have taken control of the series," said Sun rookie Oliver Miller, who had 16 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. "They've now seen the old us, the ones we were during the regular season."
Charles Barkley, who led the halftime guffaws by telling stories his teammates described as unprintable, shook off the Lakers' defensive shackles to play a dominant role. His 28-point, 11-rebound performance wasn't his statistical best, but he provided invaluable leadership after the Lakers tied the score at 51-51 with 8:26 to play in the third quarter.
By scoring one basket and setting up two others in an 11-0 Phoenix run--and in the process shredding the Lakers' defense--Barkley set the tone for an impressive effort by a team that had looked surprisingly vulnerable in losing the first two games of the series on its home court. Phoenix's margin of victory was the largest in the series and its 50% shooting performance was its best, too.
"They have a lot of guys going now," Laker Coach Randy Pfund said after the sellout crowd of 17,505 filed out of the Forum for perhaps the last time this season. "Danny Ainge and Dan Majerle and Oliver Miller are all playing well now. For a while, we had them tentative and now it looks like they've warmed up. It looks now like they're back to where they were at the best point of their season."
All of which sounds like compelling reasons for Pfund to be facing Sunday's game with a feeling that his team has lost all hope of becoming the first eighth-seeded playoff team to upset a No. 1 seeded club. Add the Lakers' 36.7% shooting, and the knowledge that Phoenix had little trouble in accelerating the pace to a speed that left the Lakers gasping, and Pfund's postgame smile seemed out of place.
But Pfund remains convinced that a series victory remains possible as he prepares for Game 5, only the second time a first-round series has gone to its limit. The lone previous occasion was 1991, when the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Seattle SuperSonics.
"It may sound funny, but if I had to play one game, I'd rather play it on the road," he said. "We were a pretty good road team this season (19-22). . . . It's a one-game series. We'll pack it up and go through the same routine we did last week when we played good basketball."
To win the first two games, they kept the score close enough to clamp down defensively in the late minutes and outscore the Suns by a combined 18-1. In Tuesday night's 107-102 loss, they were as close as one point with less than 20 seconds to play.
But on Thursday, despite the support of a loud and lively crowd, they ran out of resilience. After Byron Scott made a three-pointer to bring the Lakers even at 51-51 in what might have been his last game as a Laker at the Forum, the Suns began an 11-0 spurt. They led, 71-59, after three quarters and in the fourth quarter never let the Lakers closer than nine points, after a three-pointer by Scott cut Phoenix's lead to 83-74 with 5:13 to play.
"We played a lot better the last two games and hopefully, we can keep it going," Barkley said. "We were not handling the pressure well of being a No. 1 seed. We've been tight. I think I helped a little bit, getting everybody loose. I just said, 'We got to relax. We didn't win 62 games by being a bad team.'
"I was ready today. I can safely say I was ready today."
The Lakers thought they were, too. But too many offensive letdowns and too much Barkley doomed them.
"Those little spurts where we play well and then have lapses are killing us. That's been the difference from the first two games to the last two," said A.C. Green, who had a team-high 15 rebounds. Vlade Divac scored 17 points to lead the Lakers, who also got 13 points from Sedale Threatt and 12 from Elden Campbell.
"Their defense was definitely pretty good tonight," Green added. "You don't just shoot bad. There's usually a reason."
And what reason do they have to hope they can regain control of the tempo and the series after the Suns so decisively wrested it from them? Pfund doesn't need a reason.
"If we're going to win, we might as well win it as being the most unbelievable upset," he said.
* MARK HEISLER
Celebrities were out in force at the Forum and the air crackled with electricity again. C7
* NBA PLAYOFFS
Doc Rivers makes three three-pointers in overtime as the Knicks eliminate the Pacers. C8