In contrast with the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalries of recent vintage, which took on a slightly different look from year to year, the 1989 rerun of the Lakers-Detroit Pistons NBA Finals looks very much like, well, a rerun. "It's still the bad guys in black hats against the good guys in white hats," said Detroit center Bill Laimbeer, whose own chapeau happens to be the color of squid's ink.
The two-time defending champion Lakers, who took an 11-0 postseason record into the Finals, are every bit the proud, mature, confident team, worthy of defending the honor of last year's title, just as last year's squad so gallantly defended the banner won in 1987. Personnel may change, but class endures.
By finishing with the NBA's best record (63-19) this season, Detroit lost the battling underdog status that it took into the 1988 Finals. But the Pistons struggled at times in their Eastern Conference championship series against Chicago, and their style—in contrast with the polished professionalism of the Lakers—seems to embrace the concept of winning ugly, of making it tough on themselves and prolonging the agony of the vanquished opposition. True, they stayed out of major fights in postseason play, and they even swore off alcohol as proof of their commitment to winning the title. (Laimbeer has been the lone offender so far, paying a $100 fine recently, after he joined in a family toast celebrating his father-in-law's successful open-heart surgery.) But they were still the Bad Boys, the jive-talkers, the finger-pointers, the fist-raisers, the elbow-throwers, the fine-payers and, most of all, the defense players.
Chicago, which once held a 2-1 lead over the Pistons in the conference finals, could not solve the Piston defense and exited the playoffs last week after three straight losses. The Pistons bottled up Michael Jordan with double-teaming in Games 4 and 5, holding him—astoundingly—to eight shots (and 18 points) in a 94-85 Game 5 victory in Detroit. Detroit finally finished off the Bulls 103-94 on Friday night in Chicago by wearing down Jordan (he had 32 points but made only five of 12 from the foul line) and throwing a net over everyone else. The Bulls were still in the game in the fourth period, trailing 81-79 with about eight minutes left, when Detroit guard Joe Dumars cleanly stripped Jordan as he drove to the basket. The steal led to a fast break and a John Salley free throw, and the Bulls never got back in the game. Defense did it again.
So, Michael Jordan, whom do you like?
"I'd say L.A.," Jordan said after the game. "No, wait a minute, Detroit. Yeah, Detroit. I want Detroit to bring the title back to the Eastern Conference." Then he shook his head. "Maybe then they'll be nice guys next season."
The Lakers, obviously, drove into the Finals over different motivational terrain than the Pistons, who have not won a championship in the 31-year history of the Detroit franchise. Since L.A. coach Pat Riley could not flog his Lakers with the same whip he used after guaranteeing that they would repeat as champs last season, L.A., the theory went, would have difficulty maintaining a championship mind-set for the third straight year. The theorists were wrong.
"This team kind of senses when it's got to pick things up," said Magic Johnson. Whether it's the desire to send Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out as a winner in his 20th and final season, or to end the 1980s in a blaze of glory with a sixth title of the decade, Los Angeles's play over the last few weeks against Portland, Seattle and Phoenix indicates that, motivationally, the series is dead even.
The fatigue factor? That, too, is a wash. Sure, compared with the Lakers' smooth sail through the Western Conference playoffs, the Pistons had a difficult, physical series with the Bulls. But they still came out of it unscathed, save for Isiah Thomas's minor right hamstring pull. And anyway, L.A. wasn't exactly sipping frosted drinks on the veranda during its. "layoff." Last week Riley drove the Lakers hard during practice sessions at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, having moved his players there to get them away from distractions at home. Riley went deep into his coaching lexicon for a couple of other reasons for the trip 90 miles up the coast: to "replenish" and "hone" the Lakers' game. "We can get a lot accomplished," Riley said. "We can plan. We can prepare."
"They're his same hard practices," forward James Worthy said. "They're something we've been used to. This is more like training camp." Magic described it somewhat differently: "social hibernation and hiding."
Will either team intimidate the other? Hardly. The Pistons' black-hat image may be big news—and big business—in Detroit, where more than 70,000 copies of a Laimbeer-Rick Mahorn Bad Boy poster have sold in a month. (The two Bad Boys themselves bought the rights to the Rolling Stone photo from which the poster was made, donating to charity the profits from the first 20,000 sold. So far their donation is around $50,000.) But the Pistons' image will have little or no effect on the Lakers. Neither is Detroit likely to be blinded by the Laker championship aura, as the Pistons no doubt were when they lost Games 6 and 7 in the Forum in last year's Finals. Home court advantage is much more important than aura, and this time around it belongs to the Pistons. The Pistons also had the upper hand in their two games with the Lakers during the regular season. The Pistons won 102-99 at home on Nov. 26 and then beat the Lakers 111-103 in the Forum on Valentine's Day. "That's all in the history book, but that part of the book is closed now. The future isn't going to be predicated on the past," Riley says.
So, what will be the key factors in the Finals? Here are six of them:
•Tempo—Despite L.A.'s near-flawless half-court execution against Phoenix, the Pistons still fear the Laker fast break most of all. Perhaps it's not what it used to be, but as much as any team in basketball (with the possible exception of the Suns, and look what happened to them), the Lakers can catch a wave and ride it over the opposition, all the way to shore.
To stop L.A. from running. Detroit must do a number of obvious things—it must take good shots, get to the free throw line and hit the offensive boards. (The Pistons do only the last of these with consistency.) But they must also try to "jam" the Laker rebounder (i.e., surround him in order to break up a potential outlet pass) and stop Magic in his tracks, before he shifts into overdrive. (Probably the team most committed to doing those two things is Seattle, and the Sonics, like Phoenix, fell to the Lakers in four.) Indeed, it is one thing to theorize about stopping Magic and quite another to actually halt his spins, behind-the-back dribbles and plain brute strength, all of which get him from one end of the court to the other in complete control.
The Pistons, on the other hand, function best on Central Division Standard Time. "Slow it down, grind it out, get the Lakers in a half-court, execution-type game," says Laimbeer. "That's what we want to do." Going into Game 1 of the Finals, the Pistons had not allowed 100 points in any playoff game and were 47-4 for the season whenever they held the opposition under 100. Simply stated, the Lakers are not likely to win by an 88-85 score, any more than the Pistons are likely to beat L.A. 125-121.
"The Lakers and Pistons present the league's best contrast in terms of how to use the clock," says Brendan Suhr, a Piston assistant coach. "It's going to be very, very interesting to see which team can impose its tempo on the other."
•The trap—Picture a man lost in a forest thick with trees. Suddenly, the trees start moving, this way and that, frantically, creating confusion with diabolical efficiency. That's kind of what it's like to be lost in the middle of the Laker trap, and there's no easy way home.
When the Lakers run their trap well, Riley sees before him his vision of the perfect basketball team—five superbly conditioned 6'9" athletes (so Mychal Thompson is 6'10") running and jumping, harassing in concert all over the court. Some combination of Worthy, A.C. Green, Magic. Orlando Wool-ridge and Thompson can be devastating, and just in case the opposition tries to break out. Michael Cooper (6'7") and Byron Scott (6'4") are there for added protection. The trap serves the Lakers best when it is used to pick up the tempo by forcing turnovers and creating fast-break baskets. Riley uses it judiciously, and therein lies part of its efficacy.
However, if the Pistons can pass the ball quickly and smartly around the perimeter of the trap and get a wide-open jumper with only three or four seconds left on the 24-second clock, then the Laker trap is, in effect, merely slowing down the game and establishing Piston tempo.
•The old pick-and-roll—Focus on Laimbeer as he plants himself at the top of the key, moving slightly, ever so slightly, to pick off Thomas's man. Laimbeer will not then roll to the basket but, rather, will flare away from it in position for a long jumper should Thomas get the ball to him. The Lakers, meanwhile, run the pick-and-roll best when Thompson sets the pick for Magic and cuts to the basket in the classic manner, as soon as he feels contact (or sometimes before). Thompson "slips well," as Laimbeer puts it. The key, of course, is that a 6'9" guard is making the pass and going under, around, over or between two defenders, as he deems necessary.
Both teams have lots of offensive sets. But their execution of this most basic play will have something to do with the outcome of the series.
•The Worthy-Mark Aguirre factor—Detroit's Aguirre will never be the equal of Worthy at small forward. The begoggled Laker is an underrated player at any time, and he's vastly more than that in the playoffs (in five of the last six seasons, including this one. his playoff scoring average has surpassed his regular-season standard). However, Aguirre cannot stand by and be a nonfactor if Worthy goes out and makes himself the best player on the floor, as he did in L.A.'s three previous series. In last year's Finals, Adrian Dantley's deliberate moves at small forward not only produced points for the Pistons but also made L.A. vulnerable to illegal-defense calls, rendering its trap much less effective than it might have been. Aguirre must be a potent low-post threat if Detroit is to solve the Laker defense. Now is the time for him to justify the Feb. 15 trade that brought him to Detroit and sent Dantley to Dallas.
As Aguirre hugged and danced with his good buddy Thomas at Chicago Stadium following Game 6 last Friday night, Thomas gave him this rather unusual message: "It was my game to get us to the Finals; now it's your job to win it for us." Clearly an overstatement, but there's more than a germ of truth in it.
•The battle of the "distorted matchups"—That's Detroit's term for the unusual defensive alignments the Lakers will no doubt employ, as they did in last year's Finals. Magic, a point guard, will check Laimbeer. a center. Worthy, a small forward, will defend against Dumars, a shooting guard. Abdul-Jabbar. a center, will stalk Mahorn, a power forward.
It will be interesting to see, first of all, if the Pistons can exploit the last of those matchups; Mahorn was practically invisible in the Chicago series, taking only 21 shots in six games while being checked primarily by Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant. The Pistons are accustomed to unusual matchups (most of them caused by Laimbeer's tendency to play a perimeter role on offense) and, by and large, do not let them disturb their offensive sets. The effect on their transition defense, however, is another matter. After a Laker steal or rebound, Laimbeer, who takes teeny-tiny steps in concrete shoes, might suddenly find himself beside Magic, though not for long. Dumars might be left to guard Worthy, who would be out on the break three or four steps sooner than usual because he is defending a guard. The Pistons must make quick defensive decisions, or the Lakers will overrun them.
•The benches—Last, but definitely not least. The Piston cast goes nine-deep, and it's a legit nine; the double-figure scoring of center James Edwards, ninth man in coach Chuck Daly's rotation, was a significant factor in Games 4, 5 and 6 of the Chicago series. But don't reflexively give Detroit's depth chart the edge. Now that Woolridge has come around for L.A.—particularly on defense, where he has finally taken to heart Riley's exhortations to contest shots more actively—the Laker reserves, who also include Cooper and Thompson, are potentially as strong as Detroit's. "Sometimes I think they might have the edge," says Suhr, "because it is a genuinely difficult thing to find minutes for nine players, especially when two of the bench guys [Vinnie Johnson and Edwards] are real scorers."
It's entirely possible that the series will be decided by these reserves, with two in particular—Woolridge and Detroit's Dennis Rodman—most likely to have the greatest impact. Woolridge is a 6'9" forward of both strength and finesse, though one who has been accused, in the past, of failing in clutch situations. Rodman, by contrast, is a gangly 6'8" collection of arms, legs and ears, a leaper who lacks a shooting touch and ball-handling skills, yet who compensates by diving for loose balls, crashing the boards and relentlessly shadowing anything that dribbles.
Woolridge and Rodman are, in a sense, symbols of their teams. Look at them. Study them. What do they tell you? Will it be the Lakers in a graceful and classy three-peat? Or will it be the Bad Boys in a knock-down-and-drag-out war of attrition? The vote from here, as it was in the preseason, is Detroit. But it's an awfully close call.
L.A.'s fast break has lost some of its sizzle, but it is effective enough that Johnson—here blowing by the Suns' Tyrone Corbin in the Western Conference finals—can still set a quick pace.
2. THE TRAP
If the Pistons can get off quick outlet passes like this one from Laimbeer in last year's Finals, Detroit will be able to beat the Lakers' trapping defense and set up its potent half-court game.
3. THE OLD PICK-AND-ROLL
Abdul-Jabbar set picks that helped Magic shake his man in the '88 championship series against the Pistons, and the Lakers are hoping to make this work just as well—or even better—when Thompson takes Kareem's place.
4. WORTHY-ACUIRRE FACTOR
The daunting task confronting Laimbeer and the rest of the Pistons is to stay in Worthy's face to try to slow down the Laker ace. Meanwhile, Aguirre has to give his new Detroit mates a Dantleyesque threat in the low post.
Can the aging Abdul-Jabbar repeat his '88 success against Mahorn? On the other hand, will the Pistons be able to adjust fast enough in the transition game to defend against Magic and Worthy? If they don't, L.A. could overrun them.
6. THE BENCHES
Rodman, one of the NBA's strongest rebounders, epitomizes the Pistons' awesome nine-man depth. But the improved Woolridge makes Los Angeles almost as good coming off the pine.