The sign by the entrance to the court at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum read, "Suns Deliver Under Pressure." Oh?
The Kansas City Kings are the ones who surmounted all the pressure and incredible obstacles. They beat the Suns, 95-88, today to win their NBA Western Conference semifinal, four games to three, and advance to the league's version of the final four, where they will play the Houston Rockets.
The Suns, trying to become only the fourth playoff team to overcome a 3-1 deficit, disappointed a sellout crowd of 12,660 that varied its mood from spirited to sullen.
Kansas City thus accomplished what many believed impossible: a playoff advance by a sub-.500 team during the regular season (40-42) minus its two top players, Phil Ford and Otis Birdsong.
Ford watched from the bench where he has spent the last month nursing an eye injury, and for a time, a kidney problem. Birdsong, injured during the first playoff game against Phoenix, played sparingly and ineffectively today as a sprained ankle limited his moves and negated his considerable scoring talent.
This is a team of heroes starting with the coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons, and going down the list of its depleted roster.
Fitzsimmons, a former Phoenix coach, was forced into a massive readjustment when his all-star guards went down. He moved Scott Wedman and Ernie Grunfeld, both small forwards, to guard. That worked.
And today he started little-used John Lambert, a 6-foot-10 forward, at a guard position with Wedman returning to forward. That worked, too. Lambert is more of a shooting threat than Leon Douglas, whom he replaced, and forced the Suns into more of a straight-up, man-to-man defense.
"Lambert can shoot the ball and move around a lot," Fitzsimmons said. "He made them play us honestly."
Fitzsimmons, sure to be heaped with praise and perhaps elevated to genius level, maintained his modest posture. "I think I've been overplayed," he said. "I did what I had to, and in all honesty, it was all I could do. When you can't put in a lot of people, you can't screw up much."
Sun Coach John McLeod substituted freely, shuffling 10 players. The Kings, on the other hand, played only seven with Reggie King, Sam Lacey, Grunfeld and Wedman each totaling more than 40 minutes.
King, a 6-6 forward from Alabama, helped overcome the Suns in the third quarter when he muscled inside for 10 of his 23 points. That was the pivotal period as the Kings scored 24 points to only 12 for Phoenix, breaking open a game tied, 44-44, at halftime.
Fitzsimmons singled out the play of Lacey, the sometimes inconsistent 6-11 center. "He's the guy who did the job for us," Fitzsimmons said.
The Suns, 57-25 in regular-season play, got 28 points from Dennis Johnson and 18 from Walter Davis, but little else. The substandard play of center Alvan Adams (eight points, four turnovers) and forward Truck Robinson (two points) was especially damaging to Phoenix.
Robinson, who led the team in playing time during the season, played only 19 minutes today and hardly at all in the second half. McLeod said Robinson had a pulled muscle in his leg. The former Bullet concurred, but indicated it was not much of a hindrance and that he could have contributed.
"I've got the uniform on, so I'll just let it go," Robinson said. "I'm not the coach."