PORTLAND, Ore. -- What Magic Johnson did yesterday when the Los Angeles Lakers squared off with Portland was more than great playmaking -- it was art.
The three-time National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player took this opening game of the best-of-seven Western Conference finals into his hands and shaped it into a 111-106 Lakers victory.
Johnson finished with 21 assists, but it was the volume of his feeds that carried the day, and their sheer effectiveness.
"They double-team and I make the pass," said Johnson, who had seven assists in the pivotal fourth quarter. "I got up only eight shots, so somebody had to be open. It's my job to find them."
The Trail Blazers were riding a 14-point lead in the waning moments of the third quarter. The sellout crowd of 12,884 at Memorial Coliseum was at its noisiest, already sensing victory.
Then Johnson took over, making plays like the one when he pointed Vlade Divac to a gaping hole in the Portland defense and gently lofted the ball to the Los Angeles center for a layup.
And the ones when he fed Terry Teagle on a sizzling jumper, and found his old standbys -- Byron Scott, Sam Perkins and James Worthy -- at their favorite spots.
Johnson ran the game from the floor, urging Divac to take a smaller Cliff Robinson to the hoop.
"We saw some mismatches that we took advantage of in the fourth quarter and guys were scoring inside," Johnson said. "They went to their small team and we attacked that team very well."
When the clamor subsided, the Lakers had run off 15 straight points to take a 93-92 lead with 8 minutes, 12 seconds left.
Though there were many more hotly contested plays before the victory was sealed, that crucial stretch was the prelude to the Lakers' victory.
"They're tough-minded," Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy said of his players. "They don't quit, no matter what it looks like."
Worthy put up 28 points to lead the Lakers, Scott scored 19, Perkins had 18, Divac scored 12 and Teagle had 14 off the bench. Johnson scored 15 points.
And, of course, it was Johnson who put the Lakers ahead to stay when he drove to the basket to make the score 105-104 with 2:40 left.
"We gave them a chance to win the game and they took it," Portland coach Rick Adelman said tersely. "Magic was just terrific at finding the open people. We didn't rotate well enough a number of times and make somebody else, Byron Scott, beat us."
It was a stinging loss for the Blazers, robbing them of the home-court advantage they had worked for all season long.
"We've got our work cut out for us now," said Portland's Clyde Drexler, who had 28 points, eight rebounds and 12 assists. "We felt it would be a tough series to start with. Now it's a little tougher."
The victory spoke even louder for the Lakers, showing that they are not just good these days, they are hungry.
The Lakers showed outright disrespect for the host Blazers.
That was clear when, after locking arms with Johnson late in the first half, Jerome Kersey gave the Lakers star a little shove. Johnson turned and shoved Kersey with a tad more force.
"He pushed me," Johnson said. "This is the playoffs. I can't let him get away with that."
The Lakers started quickly and took a 27-17 lead as the usually boisterous Portland crowd became subdued, as if in a state of shock.
The Blazers became restless, however, and took the lead early in the second period.
Portland led, 62-55, at halftime and stayed out front, hitting its biggest margin, 92-78, with 44.1 seconds left in the third quarter.
Up to that point, the Blazers' performance was formidable, but it was no match for the Magic show.
"We've been there before," Johnson said. "We understand what it takes to win on the road. We didn't lose our composure. We always stay with the game plan."