A Lot Has Changed in Less Than a Week

Phoenix now leads this Western Conference playoff series, two games to two.

The ball's in the Suns' court now.

Sunday seems so long ago and far away. Last Sunday, the Lakers were the hottest little basketball team in the United States of America. Next Sunday, the Lakers could very well be cold as ice.

Thursday was the night that the big, bad Phoenix Suns were supposedly going to get the big kiss off, the night that Sir Charles Barkley and friends were going to be sent home for the summer by Serb Vlade Divac and friends, in the execution of one of the greatest ambushes in the history of playoff basketball.

Instead, the Suns did themselves proud, riding Barkley's 28 points to a no-sweat victory that may have kept a very fine basketball team out of the NBA hall of shame.

"You're not dead until you're dead," Barkley said.

Questions were to be answered Thursday night.

Would Barkley be free this weekend for golf? Would prediction-maker Paul Westphal find work on the Psychic Friends TV network? Would this be Byron Scott's final time at the Forum wearing golden tank top No. 4? Or James Worthy's wearing 42? Or Randy Pfund's final home appearance as a Laker-coaching mousse-head? Oh, and which Vlade Divac would we be seeing--the one who makes shots from everywhere, or the one who merely takes shots from everywhere?

The 17,505 who came to see for themselves ranged from Madonna (with red hair) to Hulk Hogan (still blond) to Jack Nicholson and Magic Johnson (both back where they belong) to Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis (both having, pardon the expression, a night off) to comedian Rosie O'Donnell (no relation to referee Jake) to mayoral candidate Richard Riordan (who deserved equal time whenever the crowd yelled "Woo!").

The opening tipoff was a tipoff of things to come. From the very beginning, the play in this game was high-speed and helter-skelter, Elden Campbell rushing directly to the basket and Mark West rejecting his shot halfway to El Segundo. Back came the Suns, not to patiently set up for a shot but to catapult one as soon as someone got open, in this case Dan Majerle, who wasted no time whatsoever making the score 3-0.

After that, it was Charles in charge. Possibly determined to take this series back to Phoenix or possibly just showing off for Madonna, the heretofore kept-in-check Barkley began letting nobody get in his way. Of the nine points and six rebounds contributed by Barkley during the first quarter, many came when he simply put his bald skull down like a Pamplona bull's and headed straight for the hoop.

"We haven't won a home game yet, neither team," Barkley said. "There's no more time to waste."

He looked like a man who would not be denied, who would do whatever was necessary to prevent Phoenix from officially winning the NBA's dreaded Choke Job of the '90s award. For the first 11 of the first quarter's 12 minutes, the Suns struggled and scored only 14 points. But then Barkley did a little stop-and-pop from about 15 feet, and he followed this with a vintage dunk.

When Danny Ainge found the range for three points late in the quarter, he punctuated a rally that took the Suns from a 19-14 disadvantage to a 21-19 edge. And never again did Phoenix lose control of this game.

Little runs here and there by the Lakers made the game interesting momentarily, but most of the second half was so exasperating that even Chick Hearn seemed more excited by a minor scuffle that broke out than by the rest of what he was watching. "Hit him, Charles!" the Laker announcer pleaded at one point, sensing that the only thing that was going to save the home team in this game was to put Barkley out of business, one way or another. If they couldn't reject him, maybe they could eject him.

The Lakers were too, too sloppy to win any game that a team as good as Phoenix needed to win so desperately. If it wasn't Campbell's careless pass before halftime being intercepted by a hustling Tom Chambers, it was Sedale Threatt losing control of his dribble while doing an unnecessary impression of Curly Neal. And the Laker shot selection was equally poor, while time after time, Phoenix worked for the sort of gimmes that either Sir Charles or K.J. can make in their sleep.

Which is exactly what might await the Lakers now--the big sleep. The notion of them winning three of three from Phoenix in Phoenix is a nutty one, just as the idea of an eighth-seeded team bumping off a top-seeded team is an unprecedented one. What they need is a miracle indeed.

Yes, the reason they call it a five-game series is that they can play as many as five games. But if you ask me to testify that I honestly think that the Lakers can take the fifth, well, all I can do is take the fifth.

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