The Los Angeles Lakers have looked a little faded in recent weeks, often seeming to show up in pallid lavender and yellow rather than regal purple and gold. After all, both the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks extended them to seven games in the Western Conference playoffs. Though the cast of characters that carried L.A. to the NBA championship last season remained intact, the Lakers began to look as if they weren't up to the task of repeating, especially with those black-hearted marauders, the Detroit Pistons, lying in wait. Sure enough, on June 7, Los Angeles lost Game 1 of the NBA Finals at home by a score of 105-93.
Suddenly, though, the image began to brighten in Game 2, a must-win affair for the Lakers at the Forum two nights later. They came out like small-game hunters, setting little defensive traps all over the court and catching the Pistons time and time again. The result was a series-tying 108-96 victory for L.A.
Then came Game 3. Poof! A perfect picture. These were the Lakers of old. With the Greater Detroit area going gaga over its first NBA championship series game ever, L.A. swaggered into the Pontiac Silverdome on Sunday afternoon and left with a 99-86 win. The Lakers once again went to their trapping defense, and at the other end they rediscovered their autobahn fast break. In the game-turning third quarter, Los Angeles scored 22 points off 13 fastbreak opportunities and simply ran away and hid, just as the Lakers are supposed to do.
"We kept searching for something out of our own offense, and we simply forgot to get back on defense," said Piston center Bill Laimbeer after the game. Imagine forgetting that the Lakers can run. Here's something else for Detroit to consider: If it's going to win its first NBA title, it will have to do so in L.A., where Games 6 and 7 are scheduled to be played after this Tuesday's and Thursday's games in the Silverdome.
Surprisingly enough, that doesn't sound so bad to Piston coach Chuck Daly, who was ejected midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 for arguing too vociferously with referee Earl Strom. "Maybe we can't handle all the people [39,188 were at the Silverdome on Sunday] at our house," he said. "Who knows? But I've said that I've been happier on the road than at home in the playoffs."
Interesting, but certainly Daly could not have been happier with the pressure-be-damned attitude his club brought to Game 1. Reserve center Chuck Nevitt, who was a member of the 1984-85 Lakers, was the only Detroit player who had ever been in a championship series, yet none of the Pistons seemed nervous. Before the game, starting guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars admitted to each other that neither felt as if he were about to play anything except a regular-season game. "I said to Isiah, 'I wonder how you're supposed to feel,' " said Dumars later. "Maybe it was good that we didn't know."
The Pistons had even made inroads in the show-time department, theretofore the Lakers' special domain, before the game. Los Angeles is a town that always has a place for the new kid in town, and the Pistons' unreserved reserve, forward-center John Salley, was more than up to the role. On a whirlwind tour of comedy clubs, Salley had met several new but now very good friends, like Billy Crystal, Arnsenio Hall and Sam Kinison.
By game time, though, it was Adrian Dantley, the least show-time-type guy on the Piston roster, who took over the spotlight. He ripped the Lakers for 34 points on 14-of-16 shooting. Dantley's teammates call him Teach (as in Teacher) for the variety of meticulous moves he uses to get open. Indeed, he gave a semester's lesson to Los Angeles's A.C. Green. L.A. began by double-teaming Dantley, but abandoned the tactic when Dantley's passing led to several easy first-quarter buckets and then settled on a strategy of giving him single coverage, usually by Green, until he drove to the hoop, at which point he would receive extra attention. "We waited all right," said Laker assistant coach Randy Pfund. "We waited until the ball was in the basket."
When Dantley stuck in a layup off a feed from Thomas to give the Pistons a 92-75 lead with 6:00 left, it was as if a soundless fire alarm had gone off in the Forum—thousands of fans streamed to the exits. The Lakers hung around a little longer, but they couldn't get any closer than seven points. Not since 1981, when the Houston Rockets defeated Los Angeles in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, had the Lakers lost a home opener in postseason play.
The next day was not pleasant for L.A., either. Coach Pat Riley had pored over the game film deep into the night, and he awoke to find himself criticized in the newspapers for using only seven players to combat Detroit's nine-man rotation. To make matters worse, his two reserves, Michael Cooper and Mychal Thompson, had played like Michael Jackson. "I got news for you," said Riley at a press gathering. "We weren't playing nine against seven. We were playing nine against one." And that one, Magic Johnson, who finished with 28 points and 10 assists, had the flu and didn't practice before Game 2.
Riley was also informed that a couple of Lakers had talked about not being "mentally prepared" for Game 1. He wasn't amused. "That's a cop-out," he said. "I think we got our butts kicked, and we were looking around for something to blame."
Things were going swimmingly for the Pistons. Before their afternoon workout, Salley continued the documentary film of the finals he's shooting with his videocamera. "Leeches, parasites, media hordes!" he shouted jokingly as he panned a crowded Detroit locker room. Then he shut off the camera. "Now, what was the question?" he said, turning on his comedy act.
Daly, meanwhile, described what he expected from the Lakers in Game 2. "Fatal Attraction II," he told one questioner. "Rambo IV," he told another. "Hey, we're in Hollywood."
What the Pistons got from Los Angeles in Game 2 was a little Nightmare on Elm Street. The 24-second clock ran out on Detroit on its first possession. That was a harbinger of the trouble the Pistons would have all night against the Lakers' swarming, alert defense. Detroit's lack of size at the guard position—Thomas is 6'1", Dumars 6'3", Vinnie Johnson 6'2"—works to the Lakers' advantage on the trap. Magic (6'9") and Cooper (6'7") put up a forest of pressure on the outside, and the Piston guards seemed hesitant to make the sharp cuts toward the basket necessary to beat the trap. They feared running into Green or James Worthy, both of whom stand 6'9", or even into 7'2" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when Riley uses him in the trap.
Los Angeles did an excellent job of keeping Dantley (19 points for the game) and Thomas (13) from reaching what Riley calls "the launching pad"—an area near the foul line about 17 feet from the basket. The Lakers never pulled away, but an Abdul-Jabbar skyhook that barely beat the 24-second clock with 2:44 remaining gave them a 95-90 lead and the impetus to hold off the Pistons in the stretch. With 23 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists, Johnson was once again the steadiest Laker, even though he had spent most of the day fighting a fever.
As he talked about his bout with the flu, drops of water fell from ice packs resting on both of his aching knees and on both of his previously injured Achilles tendons. And don't forget that a strained right groin kept him out of 10 regular-season games and reportedly still bothers him. Still, Magic says he's feeling just fine, and just fine was the way he played in Games 1 and 2.
By Sunday he was ready for a homecoming in Michigan, where he was born, in Lansing, and played his college ball, at Michigan State. His father, Earvin Sr., who has a fear of flying, would be watching him live in a final-round series for the first time, and his mother, Christine, would be making fried chicken, potato salad, rolls, salads, a cake and sweet potato pie for postgame consumption. The feast has become such a tradition with the Lakers on their annual regular-season visit to Detroit that after their defeat of Dallas in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, the cry that went up in the locker room wasn't "Beat Deetroit!" but "Sweet potato pie!"
Magic retained his business face before Game 3, however, rejecting calls and visits from old friends and spending most of his time around the Guest Quarters, the Laker hotel about 10 miles from the Silverdome. On Sunday he played even better than he had in Games 1 and 2, finishing with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting, 14 assists and six rebounds. The performance was both efficient and spectacular. Consider this three-play sequence in the second quarter:
Magic dribbles downcourt, goes between his legs twice and then throws in a running hook. The next time Magic comes down the court, Dumars, who was guarding him, plays off him to better protect against the drive—you would, too, after going through the previous torture—so Johnson pulls up and drills an 18-footer. Next time, Magic is under heavy pressure on the right side as the Pistons seem to have all his options covered. But he spots Green starting to cut toward the basket on the left side, looks off the defense, a la John Elway, by turning his head toward the foul line, and then whips what seems to be a blind pass to Green, who scores on a layup. "You have to keep your eyes on Magic all the time," said Worthy later, "lest you get hit upside the head."
By the end of the third quarter, the Lakers' defensive trap had turned a one-point halftime lead into a 78-64 advantage. On the Pistons' first four possessions of the quarter, Thomas and Dumars (twice) misfired from outside, and Salley missed on an awkward drive in heavy traffic. After Game 2, Detroit complained that the Lakers had played an illegal defense by switching out of the mandatory man-to-man into a 2-3 zone once the Pistons broke the trap. For the record, Laker assistant coach Bill Bertka called that "a lot of crap." Well, was it a zone? Sure, at times.
But it was clearly the legal outside pressure put on by Byron Scott, Magic and Cooper, followed by spirit-killing fast breaks at the other end, that did in the Pistons on Sunday. "Because of the hole we dug ourselves in Game 1, this win was as big as any that we've ever had," said Riley following Game 3.
The Pistons knew it, too, and they were subdued—chastened even—by the outcome. Over in the Laker locker room, the mood was a lot happier. There was Abdul-Jabbar, who had shaken off a poor performance—4 of 13 for eight points—in Game 1 to score 15 and 12 points, respectively, in Games 2 and 3. That's just about what Los Angeles needs from him these days. There was Worthy, patellar tendinitis of the left knee and all, who had battled through the pain—how much he won't tell—and through the punishing Piston defense to score 24 points. There was Magic, the best player in the game whose summer vacation has not begun. And there was his mom's sweet potato pie. Everyone agreed it was of championship caliber.