This season's early checkpoint game for the Los Angeles Lakers took place not on the creaking parquet floor of Boston Garden, as it usually does, but at a new $80 million suburban arena known as The Palace of Auburn Hills. Saturday night's matchup, the first regular-season NBA game to be nationally televised in prime time since 1972, was significant not only because the Lakers and the Pistons were the two teams left standing at the end of last season, but also because Detroit has become the principal—perhaps the only—foil for L.A. And also because, let's face it, a Lakers-Pistons game is the only sporting event in these United States in which smooching is part of the story.
"In time, yes, this could be a rivalry like L.A.-Boston," said the Lakers' Magic Johnson, one of the lovebirds, "and the way you establish that is by having games like this." Well, not really. It was certainly a tense and engaging affair, but it was no classic. Don't think the Lakers weren't prepared for the Pistons' physical style of play. At a practice session on Friday, L.A. coach Pat Riley instructed his defenders to "foul as hard as you want." But the game more or less followed the example set by Magic and his Detroit buddy, Isiah Thomas, who twice exchanged kisses on the cheek, once during the taping of a CBS promo on Saturday morning and again on the court just before tipoff.
After Magic's three-point shot bounced off the backboard with about five seconds remaining and his second last-gasp attempt was swatted away by his kissin' cousin, the Pistons had beaten the Lakers 102-99. Certainly Detroit was happy with the victory, but if the Pistons were looking to make a big statement—i.e., we're the team to beat and you're not—they failed.
For one thing, Detroit should have been able to take better advantage of a bruised knee that Magic suffered while trying to block an Adrian Dantley layup during the first quarter. The sore knee limited Johnson to 32 minutes of play. For another, the Pistons repeatedly had trouble penetrating the Lakers' half-court trap and now must worry about their ability to work successfully against pressure defenses. The net effect of these negatives was that Riley was able to say, correctly, in defeat, "Any loss stings a little, but I don't think anything definitive was proved tonight."
The Lakers and Pistons didn't have to prove that they're the class of the NBA these days. Everyone already knew it. Detroit's 10-2 record, the best in the league as of Sunday, had been carved out largely on the road, where it was 7-1, while Los Angeles's 8-3 record at week's end manifested a steady-as-she-goes takeoff for the uncertain flight toward a third straight championship. Keep in mind, though, that L.A.'s station atop the league is far less secure than Detroit's. Should the Lakers lose Magic, his backcourt partner Byron Scott or shooting forward James Worthy for long, they'll be in trouble.
By contrast, the Pistons have the resources to plug any hole. Thomas goes down? Joe Dumars can run the show for a while. Small forward Dantley goes down? That would mean more scoring opportunities for Dumars and supersub Vinnie Johnson and more playing time for Dennis Rodman, whose pogo-stick offensive rebounding keyed the win over the Lakers. Piston coach Chuck Daly can, and does, make so many substitutions at so many positions that center Bill Laimbeer was playing shooting guard for a few minutes against L.A.
Riley pooh-poohs the notion that Detroit's depth gives it a distinct advantage over Los Angeles. "There were times in last year's finals—Games 6 and 7 [both Laker victories], for example—when our starters really took advantage of their second unit," says Riley. "Depth will help them during the regular season, no doubt about it. But the playoffs are a different matter."
Riley is kidding himself, however, if he thinks the Pistons' second unit isn't stronger this season. In Saturday's game, for example, the trio of Rodman, Johnson and John Salley shot .565 (13 of 23), a much better percentage than the .366 (15 of 41) clanked up by starters Dantley, Laimbeer and Thomas. And though Riley's point about exploiting Detroit's second unit in Games 6 and 7 is well-taken, it may not be so easily done this season, should there be a repeat championship series. Daly will be giving his subs key minutes in tight games, and they're bound to mature.
Rodman, for one, was on the floor down the stretch on Saturday. With 14 seconds left and the Pistons leading by 101-99, he went high above the crowd to grab a Thomas miss—the rebound was Rodman's fifth of the game off the offensive board—and then dribbled madly out of the pack like a kid fleeing with a stolen apple. Laimbeer then hit one of two free throws with eight seconds left for the final margin of victory.
"Offensive rebounding just comes natural to me," says Rodman, who followed up his last effort off the boards with, oh, maybe half a minute of his distinctive finger pointing, which rallies the home crowd and irritates opponents. "Sometimes I probably go over the top on my man, but I don't get called on it a lot. See, I tap the ball to myself, and that throws the referee off."
Yes, Detroit knows it has the bodies to be champion. But does it have the mind-set? The Pistons appear to walk a fine line between discord and harmony—discord seemed to prevail last season. This delicate situation may be the inevitable flip side of all that depth. But Thomas insists that this is now a happy team, and he may be right. In the NBA a happy team is one that spreads the wealth around, and after Saturday's game Detroit had nine players averaging seven or more points per game. (The leading Piston scorer, Dumars, at 17.9, was only the league's 41st leading scorer after Saturday's games.) And in the NBA a happy team is one with renegotiated contracts, too; within the last year Detroit management has redone packages for Thomas (which puts him at about $2 million per year), Rodman ($500,000) and Dumars ($550,000). A potential storm system lies in the Pistons' path, however. The front office may soon want to reinstate center William Bedford, who has been inactive while receiving drug counseling, but the players don't want him back.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are a team "in semitransition," according to Riley. The primary change from last year has been the acquisition of Orlando Woolridge, an unrestricted free agent who spent most of last season injured or in drug rehabilitation. Woolridge wanted to stay near his rehab support group in Van Nuys, Calif., and he also wanted to play with a winner, having spent the last two seasons with New Jersey. The Lakers, who usually draft near the back of the pack, rarely get a chance to land a player of Woolridge's talent, and he was certainly worth the money, if only to satisfy Magic's request to "get someone who plays above the rim." Woolridge does that, all right, and his size (6'9") and quickness make him a formidable force in the Laker pressure defense. But it remains to be seen if his reputation as a poor clutch player is well-founded.
Los Angeles's primary shortcoming this season has been its failure to get something besides farewell speeches out of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who will officially retire at the end of this season. (He endured his second bye-bye ceremony along the endless trail on Saturday.) The plan going into the season was to play Abdul-Jabbbar in six-and seven-minute spurts for a total of between 26 and 29 minutes a game. Riley figured this would produce numbers approximating those of last year, when Abdul-Jabbar averaged 14.6 points and 6.0 rebounds a game, but it hasn't. At week's end, Abdul-Jabbar's stats were 8.5 and 5.4. He shot well against Detroit, making seven of 10 attempts, but he had only one rebound and was not on the floor for the final 5:17. At times he is even being waved out of the pivot to allow Magic to post up or to give Worthy space to maneuver. "I don't take it personally," says Abdul-Jabbar. "This is a year where I'm being phased out of the offense."
Eventually the Lakers will have to work out exactly what it is they need from their grand old man; remember that although Mychal Thompson is an excellent backup center, a backup center is what he is.
What the Lakers still have is the power generated by that terrific threesome of Magic, Scott and Worthy. Scott (22.5 points per game) scores so effortlessly and in so many ways that one wonders how many points he would get if he attempted a Jordanesque 25 shots per game instead of his modest 16.7. And he has become, according to assistant coach Bill Bertka, "a dominant defensive player too." Worthy is still bothered by tendinitis in his left knee at times, but one wouldn't know it by his 22.7 scoring average.
And as for Magic, well, his teammates say he is playing at a higher level than in his MVP season of 1986-87. As the result of an off-season dieting and running program, Johnson is eight pounds lighter and has 4% less body fat than last season.
"What sets the Lakers apart from us?" mused Laimbeer last week. "Only one thing. A 6'9" guard."
Ultimately, the Magic factor may well be the one that puts the Lakers over the top. Or it may be depth that lifts the Pistons to their first NBA title. But it's far too early to tell, as even Saturday's winners agreed. "Put it like this," said Detroit's Dumars, a man of few words. "It's good to be one up on them, but...and then put in those three little dots that means it's not finished." Consider it done, Joe.