Los Angeles — Perhaps it is a trifle presumptuous to say that so far this year's National Basketball Association playoffs have belonged to 6 ft. 8 in. Earvin (Magic) Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers.
After all, Julius Erving is still doing his thing for the Philadelphia 76ers, Larry Bird for the Boston Celtics, and NBA scoring champion George Gervin for the San Antonio Spurs. And to reach the league playoff finals, against the Celtics, 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks, the Lakers must first dispose of the Spurs in an upcoming best-of-seven series.
But the kind of super basketball Johnson has been playing lately never came off a drawing board, grew out of a series of practices, or emerged from a computer.
Instead it came straight out of a head that sees things other players don't see; creates and monitors a built-in rhythm; and reacts positively to situations others have to think about.
The thing you have to remember is that Johnson isn't a guard or forward in the conventional sense of the term, but a player who can get you the ball, score points, go hard on defense, and get everyone around him involved in what's happening. In short, Magic's personality can lift a whole team.
''Because Johnson is so high up there on the wagon, smiling and throwing roses to everyone and having such a good time, his actions are sometimes misunderstood,'' Laker coach Pat Riley once told reporters.
''But don't let anyone kid you that Magic doesn't also pull the wagon. He handles game pressure about as well as anyone I've ever seen, and he doesn't have to score a lot of points to beat you, either.''
Whether Johnson is playing alongside L.A.'s starting all-star guard, Norman Nixon, or working with sixth man Michael Cooper, there is no letup in his running game or his all-out effort at both ends of the floor.
''When this team fast-breaks, plays defense, and gets into its transition game, we generate so much confidence among ourselves that nobody can stop us,'' Magic explained. ''That's when I start to deal on people. You know, let it all out and not give the other team time to set up on defense. It's a great feeling because you sure can get a lot of quick points that way.''
Last year, when the NBA playoffs came around, the Lakers got trapped by their own ego problems. They lost to a good Houston team that actually couldn't match L.A.'s talent. What the Rockets did was sense a problem with indecision among its opponents and turn it into an advantage.
This year that wouldn't have been possible, as indicated by the way the Lakers played hard at both ends of the floor in eliminating the Phoenix Suns in four straight in the Western Conference playoffs. In fact, they buried Phoenix with their intensity.
''My feeling right now is that Magic is the best guard in the NBA,'' said Larry Creger, a former NBA assistant coach who now scouts for the Detroit Pistons. ''I watch and I marvel sometimes at how he seems to come up with every loose ball. It happens far too often to be a coincidence.
''Most teams are discovering, if they didn't know it already that when Magic has the ball you have to stop him before he gets into the lane or else he's either going to score or make you commit a foul against him,'' Creger continued. ''And at 6-8 and with his instincts, he gets back an awful lot of his own rebounds. I guess the thing I like best about him is that he can beat you in so many ways.''
Al Attles, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, had this to say about Johnson: ''There are two kinds of passers in the NBA. The first kind can make a pass that looks good but doesn't lead to anything. Then there's the second, where the passer always gets the ball to a teammate where he can do something with it. Magic Johnson not only belongs to that second group, he just seems to do it better than anyone else.''
Of course, when Johnson first came into the league, he had some of the same problems that playmaker Bob Cousy had years ago when he first joined the Boston Celtics.
As in Cousy's case, Magic's teammates often had trouble adjusting to his no-look passes. They just couldn't believe he knew they were open and simply weren't expecting the ball when it came. But after getting hit in the face a few times they adjusted, and Johnson, instead of getting charged with a turnover, was suddenly piling up assists.
The first time most people meet Magic, they have trouble coping with his ubiquitous smile and his enthusiasm because they can't believe that either is real. Some of Magic's teammates had that same problem when he first joined the Lakers.
But they know now that it's not a put-on, and neither are all the triple-number NBA games Johnson has had this season, meaning double figures in scoring, rebounding, and assists.