The Los Angeles Lakers and the Detroit Pistons swept into this season's championship series as vastly different fronts on the NBA weather map. The former was a familiar, well-charted high-pressure area, the latter, an ominous, unpredictable storm center. No one was sure what would happen when the systems collided, and, indeed, the first five games produced no pattern. The Pistons won Games 1, 4 and 5 by an average of almost 16 points, while the Lakers won Games 2 and 3 by 12 and 13 points, respectively. None of the encounters was particularly dramatic.
On Sunday at the Forum in Ingle-wood, Calif., however, Showtown and Motown finally played themselves a classic in Game 6. The Lakers prevailed 103-102 to tie the series at three games apiece and force a decisive seventh game. Over the past year Los Angeles coach Pat Riley has talked frequently about the Lakers' having the opportunity to leave "footprints" by becoming the first NBA team to win back-to-back championships since the powerful Boston Celtics of 1968 and '69. But this exquisitely tense sixth game, "the most interesting game that I've ever been in," according to Los Angeles's Magic Johnson, had more to do with fingernails than footprints. The Lakers just barely held on.
As for the Pistons, late into Sunday night they were preoccupied with an ankle, specifically Isiah Thomas's right one. While conducting a clinic on playground-style basketball in the third quarter, Thomas sustained a severe sprain to the ankle and was listed as "doubtful" for Game 7. Then again, it seemed doubtful that anyone, even someone with a biblical name, could score an NBA Finals-record 25 points in one quarter against the Lakers in their building. But that's what Thomas did as he shot Detroit, which had trailed 53-46 at halftime, to an 81-79 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Hobbling and in obvious pain, Thomas then cooled off a bit, but a 17-foot jumper—his 42nd and 43rd points of the game—followed by two free throws from his backcourt mate, Joe Dumars, put the Pistons ahead 102-99 with a minute left. L.A. took timeout and huddled. Detroit mentally uncorked the champagne that was waiting in its locker room. "Anticipating it?" said Pistons swingman Dennis Rodman later. "I was way beyond that. I was saying, 'We got it now.' "
June 26, 1988
They didn't. The Lakers' Byron Scott had it now, and he made a 12-foot jump shot to bring Los Angeles within one, 102-101. Detroit then went to Thomas, natch. He took a similar shot (jumper from left corner) under similar circumstances (with L.A.'s Michael Cooper in his face) that completed his remarkable outburst in the third quarter. But this time he missed, and James Worthy of the Lakers grabbed the rebound with 27 seconds remaining.
After another timeout, Los Angeles went right to Magic. His path to the basket was cut off, so he whipped the ball to Scott, who dumped it inside to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who swung his body into that majestic set of mechanics known as the skyhook. Detroit center Bill Laimbeer had had success throughout the series in countering that shot by slightly bumping Abdul-Jabbar as he went into I his windup, thereby disturbing his rhythm. Even on Sunday, Abdul-Jabbar was only 3 of 14 from the field. This time, however, Laimbeer bumped too hard, and he was whistled for a foul, his sixth, as Abdul-Jabbar's shot from the right baseline bounced off the far rim.
The other Laker starters—Johnson, Worthy, Scott and A.C. Green—all had higher free throw percentages than Abdul-Jabbar this season. But was there anyone else Riley would rather have had on the line in this clutch situation than his 41-year-old center? "I couldn't choose between Kareem and Buck [Johnson]," said Riley after the game, "because they've been there so many times." Sure enough, the 7,608th and 7,609th successful free throws of Abdul-Jabbar's 19-year career gave Los Angeles a 103-102 lead with 14 seconds remaining.
Detroit had one last chance to win, and Thomas, gimpy ankle and all, was the first option. But just after Adrian Dantley tossed the ball inbounds to Dumars, Dantley collided with Thomas, and both went down. For the Pistons, the collision was an eerie flashback to last year's seventh-game loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. In that game Dantley was sidelined after running into teammate Vinnie Johnson. This time nobody left the game, but the damage was considerable in another way.
"Once Isiah fell, I was all over him," said Cooper on Sunday. "I didn't want him to get the ball." Dantley got up, but Dumars, the second option, took it to the basket. "I never get the plays at the end of the game," said Dantley, the series' leading scorer through six games with a 22.2 average. "That's just the makeup of this team." Dumars got by his man, Scott, and leaned in for a one-hander in the lane as Green came over to lend defensive help. The shot was too hard and bounced off the glass, but Rodman, who had pulled down three offensive rebounds in only 23 minutes of playing time, grabbed the ball. However, he couldn't hold on to it; it slithered off his hands, and with it went the Pistons' chances of winning in six.
After the game Abdul-Jabbar tried to describe what was going through his mind when he was standing at the foul line with 14 seconds to go. "I just went through my usual routine and kept my mind clear," said Kareem, who made 8 of 8 free throws on the day. At the same time, Johnson was describing, in Magicese, the performance of Thomas, who was called Johnson's "little buddy" so often during the series that you sometimes had the feeling you were listening to reruns of Gilligan 's Island.
"I wasn't surprised Isiah went off the way he did," said Magic. "When he gets to skipping and hopping out there, that's the sign—his playground sign. And he was definitely skipping and hopping."
At that moment skipping and hopping were not in Thomas's repertoire. He was stretched out on a bench in the Detroit locker room, immobile, eyes closed, right ankle covered by a giant ice bag. He had hurt his back in the third game, and during Game 6 he also had been poked in the right eye and gouged on the left cheek. Thomas finally stirred when filmmaker Spike Lee approached. Too bad Lee didn't shoot the finals, for Thomas's performance was nothing if not cinematic. Consider:
In Game 1, Thomas and Johnson began their quest, which would continue throughout the series, for an NBA record that will never be equaled, unless by them: most pregame kisses exchanged at center court, NBA Finals. Hey, Rodman, would you ever consider smooching with Magic? "Before that," said Rodman, "we'd have to get engaged."
Thomas showed up for Game 4 in Pontiac with a dreamy smile on his face in spite of his aching back. "I'm feeling a little drowsy from the two pain pills I took," he said an hour before game time. In addition, Thomas hadn't been getting a lot of sleep because of his back—and because his wife, Lynn, was 8½ months pregnant.
The game was anything but soporific, though, and Thomas was in the middle of most of the action. In the fourth quarter he absorbed what he considered a cheap shot from Magic and—lo and behold!—he picked himself up from the floor and gave Johnson a hard shove. DAMON STRIKES PYTHIAS! Spike, where were you?
Minutes later, Magic, somewhat frustrated by the hard fouls that had been inflicted on him, as well as by his team's failure to respond to Detroit's physical play, took still another shot at Thomas. ("Just a lovers' quarrel" is how Riley would describe this turn of events.) Laimbeer moved in on Magic after that one, but order was restored, though not the Lakers' equilibrium. Thrown off stride by the Pistons' no-holds-barred style, Los Angeles lost by an embarrassing 111-86, and the series was tied 2-2.
At 7 p.m. on June 15, the night between Games 4 and 5, Joshua Isiah Thomas was born at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Pontiac. He weighed six pounds, 5½ ounces, measured 19½ inches and, much like this year's Pistons, arrived somewhat sooner than expected, three weeks, to be exact. Isiah was present at the delivery but was not credited with an assist.
Still in a new-father stupor, Thomas dragged his weary body into the locker room two hours before Game 5. He changed into his uniform and his game face, as several congratulatory balloons bobbed around his locker. He deflected all questions about his private life, for he knew that the Lakers, angry about Game 4, definitely would not be talking baby talk.
In fact they had been talking trash, or what amounts to trash coming from the usually subdued and conservative champions. According to Riley, the Lakers' videotape of Game 4 had revealed at least one unprovoked forearm smash—"the kind that Too Tall Jones might deliver," he said—from Piston forward Rick Mahorn to the head of Green. "Of course," continued Riley with a humorless smile, "he was only doing his job." Other members of the Laker entourage alluded to other Piston strokes that apparently had gone undetected and, thus, unwhistled.
Reserve center-forward Mychal Thompson: "Like all Eastern teams, the Pistons are bullies." Magic on Mahorn: "He can dish it out, but he can't take it. He throws out all this cheap stuff, but he doesn't want you to come back at him. Well, if it happens in Game 5, I'm going to have to hit him right back."
Riley, though, was no less distressed at his own club. "I'm not disappointed and irritated," he said. "I'm well beyond that. I'm disgusted." Thompson described L.A.'s soft play in Game 4 in political terms ("We were George Bush clones in Laker uniforms"), while Magic chose a battlefield analogy. "We were like Cluster, or whatever his name was," he said.
So, Los Angeles came out smokin' in Game 5, taking it to Little Big Mahorn and the rest of the Pistons with a fast-paced style that produced a 15-2 advantage in the early going. But maybe, just maybe, L.A. has grown too old for that kind of all-out assault. By early in the second quarter, Detroit was in front 33-32. The Pistons won 104-94 to take a 3-2 lead in the series.
The Lakers could not even pick their poison in the game. It came fast, as when Vinnie (Microwave) Johnson came flying off the bench in the first quarter and scored 12 points in a 5:50 span that carried into the second period. Or when Rodman and John Salley started taking defensive control, the former with his energetic and almost defiant containment of Magic (he and Dumars held Johnson to 4-of-15 shooting from the floor), the latter with his three blocked shots and 10 rebounds. The two supersubs frequently crossed arms, a routine they started after Boston's Kevin McHale called them "the X factor" during this year's Eastern Conference finals. To the Lakers, they were strictly X-rated.
At other times, the poison came slowly, as when Dantley went into his studied, almost obsessive retinue of offensive moves. Wipe...off...sweat...spin...ball...Jab-step...fake.... He not only drove the Lakers crazy in Game 5, but he also faked the drive, took a rocker step back and released his deliberate, anachronistic one-hander, taking all the care of a man placing a piece of valuable china on a shelf. Dantley finished with 25 points and ignited Detroit with some uncharacteristic displays of fist-waving emotion. "He was acting like Rodman or somebody out there," said Dumars, Dantley's closest friend on the Pistons.
The Lakers, home again but with their backs to the wall, looked drained before Game 6. The physical toll of two seven-game series before this one, plus the mental burden of their coach's promise to repeat, showed on their faces. And on Riley's, too. He has rejoiced when his team has responded, agonized when it has not. Angst clings to him like one of his European-cut suits. Surely he is one of the few coaches who can wax anthropological and sound sincere. "I think we'll play well [in the sixth game]," said Riley. "Man's greatest fear is the fear of extinction."
And so they did. Worthy had spent much of Saturday watching a tape of Dantley's offensive moves, and on Sunday he held AD to 14 points while scoring 28. Green, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds, was solid, Scott (16 points) reliable, Magic (19 assists) unselfish, and Abdul-Jabbar (two big free throws) unflappable. "Without a doubt, our experience and maturity won this game," said Riley.
They would need those qualities again on Tuesday night to prevent Detroit from winning its first NBA title. "Some people are surprised that the series is going seven," said Magic, "but not me. It's no longer just L.A. and Boston in this league. Detroit is here. And here to stay."