PUSHED TO THE BRINK

The Pistons took a 3-0 lead over the badly hamstrung Lakers in the NBA Finals
June 18, 1989

Somewhere on their way to becoming a classic summer sequel, the NBA Finals seemed to go desperately wrong last week. What had been expected to be a confrontation between the two best teams playing at the top of their games turned into a rout. For the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers, who lost their starting backcourt to hamstring injuries within a four-day period, the bizarre turn of events may have been best summarized by a headline in the Los Angeles Times that read more like a supermarket tabloid: ELECTRICAL JOLT HELPS (AND HURTS) SCOTT: 'I SCREAM OUT LOUD.'

The Scott in question was Byron, the Lakers' third-leading scorer during the regular season, who suffered a partly torn left hamstring in practice the day before the championship series began and did not play a minute in the first three games. Then, in the third quarter of Game 2, Magic Johnson strained his left hamstring; he was able to make only a token appearance in Game 3 on Sunday. Both wounded Lakers were treated with a device that fired electricity into their legs to stimulate the injured areas. Forward Dennis Rodman of the Detroit Pistons received the same treatment for back spasms, and with all the electrotherapy going on, the Finals began to look a lot like a remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with Jack Nicholson in a cameo role this time.

In a week filled with shocks—not all of them electrical—surely the biggest of all was that the Lakers were going into Tuesday's Game 4 on the verge of being swept before their home fans. "Right now," Magic said Sunday, after Detroit won 114-110 to go up 3-0 in the series, "my heart feels worse than my hamstring."

With Johnson able to play for only 4:46 in that game, what had been the preeminent running team of the decade was slowed almost to a crawl. The decision to bring Johnson to the bench required little thought. "He just couldn't do anything," Laker coach Pat Riley said.

Even before Magic and his hamstring limped off into the sunset, the Lakers were repeatedly caught flat-footed as Detroit's guards went rocketing past them for open jumpers or layups. The collision defenses usually employed in a championship series are supposed to make the lane a forbidding place for little men, but 6'1" point guard Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, who is 6'3", spent so much time motoring up the middle of the Lakers' defense that they looked like commuters headed home from the Ford plant near the Southfield Freeway. "Last year, one of the biggest advantages we had was the quickness of our guards," Thomas said, "and we never exploited it. Riley did an excellent job then of neutralizing our quickness with the big lineup they used. This year we're making a conscious effort in every game to use our quickness."

The Lakers simply had no one quick enough to stay with Thomas and Dumars, and no one strong enough to repel the relentless advance of Vinnie Johnson, the third man in the Pistons' back-court rotation. Several Detroit players said they were startled when they realized the Lakers weren't going to switch aggressively while running through Detroit's labyrinth of screens, a tactic Chicago had used successfully against the Piston guards in the Eastern Conference finals. "You'd come off a screen and be open," Vinnie Johnson said of the Laker defense, "so you'd go, 'Oh,' and just take it in for a layup."

Against the more physical Bulls, Detroit's backcourt had shot a combined 39%, but against Los Angeles that number increased to 57%. Dumars was so hot in the second half on Sunday that Thomas actually pulled up on a fast break one time and tossed the ball back out to Dumars, who blazed away from 20 feet for two of his game-high 31 points.

Dumars has always been a capable scorer but is best known for his defensive work. He and Rodman made the NBA's All-Defensive team this year, and Dumars was expected to have his hands so full guarding Magic Johnson that scoring would be only an afterthought. So Dumars merely afterthought his way to 29 points a game against the Lakers, while shooting 62%. In Game 2 he poured in 26 points in the first half, then in Game 3 topped that with 21 points in the third quarter.

With a lineup that frequently included four players who stood 6'9" or taller, the Lakers had grown accustomed to overpowering their opponents. But after the dismal results of the first two games in Detroit, Riley started encouraging his players to think small. "We like overall size, but we've been playing 6'9" guys against 6'2" guys—the prototype quick guards who can do it all—and with our size, it's physiologically impossible to keep up with that quickness," Riley said. "They've completely broken down our defense. I never saw three guards drool like their guards drooled the other night. Their eyes are lighting up every time they get the ball."

In some cases, their eyes were lighting up even before they got the ball. Way before. Vinnie Johnson, who is known as the Microwave for his ability to generate quick offensive heat, revealed that his fuel included pregame megadoses of ginseng—the extract of an herb grown primarily in the Far East. To give himself a lift, Johnson even sips the stuff from a vial during timeouts and stretches on the bench. "During the course of the game, you find you're not breathing as hard as the other guys," Johnson said of the ginseng's restorative powers. "You feel fresh, like you can play for another 40 minutes." The league's response to the ginseng situation was muted, but if this catches on, it's not hard to envision a future in which ginseng rehab centers dot the land.

Each game in this series was preceded by an exchange of kisses between Magic and his friend Isiah—a ritualized display of pregame comity now expanded to include the pouting lips of their pal Mark Aguirre. Aguirre, a small forward, came to the Pistons in a controversial midseason trade involving Adrian Dantley, who was Detroit's leading scorer in the Finals a year ago. Dantley has suggested that he was shipped off to Dallas because he would not kiss Thomas on any part of his anatomy, and while Aguirre gave exceptionally good pregame smooches, he was rarely a factor in the series. "What I brought to the Pistons is more of a flow," he explained enigmatically. By week's end, however, his production seemed to have flowed south; he was 0 for 6 in Sunday's outing.

Once the kissing was over, the Lakers were prepared to bump with the Bad Boys, but it never really came to that. L.A. forward James Worthy came into the series shooting 60.3% for the playoffs, but without Scott's long jumpers to stretch the defense, Worthy was unable to shake the leaning presence of forward Rick Mahorn. Worthy missed six of the nine shots he took in the first quarter of Game 1, a start from which neither he nor the Lakers ever recovered. It didn't help that A.C. Green, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Orlando Woolridge and Michael Cooper each picked up two fouls in the first quarter, or that the Lakers had only one offensive rebound during the second and third periods. Nor did it help the Lakers' cause that they could score but 11 points through the first 10:51 of the third quarter as Detroit opened up a lead it never lost in a 109-97 victory.

Cooper had started in Scott's place, and when he went to the bench, Riley was forced to play ninth man Tony Campbell for 25 minutes. That caused such confusion that even Magic seemed rattled. He took only 12 shots and turned the ball over five times, once launching a pass into the stands when Campbell cut the wrong way. It could not have been a comforting sight for any Laker partisan to see the two-time defending world champions walking off the floor at the end of the first quarter explaining the plays to each other.

Even on those rare occasions when the Pistons allow their testosterone levels to drop within normal range, their defense remains constant. Through 14 playoff games they did not allow an opposing team to score 100 points. The Lakers finally broke through in a 108-105 loss in Game 2. "Everybody's responsible for his own man in our defense, and everybody's very conscious of that," said Detroit forward John Salley, who blocked eight shots in the first two games. "No traps, no zones, no excuses. Make a mistake, you mess up our defense."

The only time that happened last week was moments after Magic pulled up lame and then disappeared into the locker room for good late in the third quarter of Game 2. The Lakers ran off 14 points in little more than three minutes, opening an eight-point lead before the Pistons could gather themselves. But that was the end of it. Los Angeles then went nearly 9½ minutes without a basket, while Thomas—with his own tender right hamstring heavily bandaged and a gash over his left eye sending blood streaming down his face and neck—drove the Pistons' offense. L.A. still had a chance to tie the game with two seconds left, but Worthy missed the first of two free throws, and that was that.

After the game, Magic stood in the middle of a bathroom while his thigh was carefully wrapped—a tableau rich in symbolism, for with each layer of tape the Lakers' chances were buried a bit deeper. Johnson and Scott represented 42 points and 16 assists gone from the Lakers' offense, but emotionally, the loss of Johnson was incalculable. Thomas, who had played on a badly sprained ankle in Games 6 and 7 a year ago, knew what Magic was going through. "I just sat all alone in my hotel room last year and cried," he said. But when Thomas was asked if the absence of Scott and Johnson tainted what the Pistons were on the verge of winning, he stiffened. "If we beat the Little Rascals, it would be sweet," he said.

Confronted with the likelihood that Magic wouldn't play in Game 3, Riley could only cling to the dim hope that Abdul-Jabbar, playing in the final series of his remarkable career, could summon up a single great game from memory. "We have to go to him," Riley said. "The shots have to come from somewhere. Why not from him? We're hoping for one last hurrah from Kareem." It had been a difficult spring for Abdul-Jabbar, whose every move seemed creaky and painfully slow. He was frequently asked embarrassing questions about whether he was retiring a year too late. "I don't have any regrets," he said. "But some people might have second thoughts. It's understandable."

On Sunday he struck a final grace note, scoring 24 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. But it wasn't enough. Thomas added 26 to Dumars's 31. Rodman played as if he had been shot out of a gun, grabbing 19 rebounds. The Pistons were one game away from their first world championship, and it appeared that the Lakers were expecting no miracles. "I cried enough the last couple of days," Magic said. "I'm through with that. Reality has set in."

It was about to set in for the Pistons, too. "We understand the chess game that we're playing," Thomas said. "We've captured two bishops and a queen, but it's still not checkmate."

PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBARodman, bad back and all, had the right stuff for sure whenever he came in off the bench. PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAWith Vinnie Johnson (15), the Microwave, cooking, Detroit turned up the heat on L.A. PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAThe magic disappeared for the Lakers when Johnson pulled his left hamstring in Game 2. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHThe underrated Dumars (4) was unstoppable, even when Magic was still playing.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)