The NBA'S world returned to relative normalcy in Portland, Ore., on Sunday afternoon. The Detroit Pistons were once again the best team in basketball, the Portland Trail Blazers were moaning about the Pistons' style of play, and Bill Laimbeer left Portland's Memorial Coliseum wearing a black hat, figuratively and literally.
The Pistons' 121-106 rout of the Blazers put the defending champions back in control of the 1990 Finals, two games to one. Even with victories in Games 4 and 5 at the Coliseum this week, the Blazers will have to return to the Pistons' Palace of Auburn Hills. Portland did play well in both Games 1 (a 105-99 loss) and 2 (a 106-105 overtime victory) at The Palace, but just well enough, it may turn out, to have awakened Detroit from the semi-stupor in which it began the series.
"Historically, when our team feels threatened is when we're at our best," said Laimbeer, who in Game 3 grabbed 12 rebounds, drew no fewer than five offensive fouls and generally drove the Trail Blazers to distraction with his distinctive and bothersome brand of theatrical mayhem. "We don't handle prosperity very well at all."
That may benefit Detroit as the series progresses, with Game 4 to have been played Tuesday night and Game 5 on Thursday. Shooting guard-defensive specialist Joe Dumars learned of the death of his 65-year-old father, Joe II, minutes after Game 3. He initially elected to remain with the team until after the games in Portland. Then he will attend the funeral on Saturday and most likely will play if there is a Game 6 Sunday. Dumars, however, was extremely close to his father, who died of complications from diabetes, so the psychological effect of his father's death remained to be seen.
Certainly the Pistons were not looking prosperous going into Game 3. With the series tied 1-1, not only were they facing the historical reality of not having won in Memorial Coliseum since 1974, but also they were suffering from the ankle injury that had limited the considerable contributions of defensive specialist Dennis Rodman in Games 1 and 2. Coach Chuck Daly had already decided by Saturday afternoon, the day before the game, that Rodman would not start (as it happened, he did not play at all), and that in his place would be Mark Aguirre, who may be a better scorer than Rodman (who isn't?) but is not nearly as feared on defense.
Detroit, nevertheless, grabbed a one-point advantage late in the first period and held the lead in a death grip the rest of the afternoon. Once the margin grew to double figures early in the third period, it was evident that the Pistons would not surrender, certainly not on this day.
At one point in the fourth period, Dumars careened down the lane and threw in an off-balance prayer. "Your father put that one in," Isiah Thomas thought to himself at the time. Thomas was the only Piston who had been told of the death of Dumars's father before the game. Dumars had instructed his wife, Debbie, that if his father, who had been ailing, died on a game day, he wasn't to be informed until later.
Game 3 marked one of the few times in the postseason that backcourt mates Dumars (33 points) and Thomas (21) got hot together, and they were joined by third guard Vinnie Johnson, who shot his way out of a slump that had threatened to transform him from "Microwave" to "Refrigerator." Johnson entered the game having made good on only three of his last 25 field goal attempts in the postseason, but he shot 9 of 13 on Sunday.
The Piston defense also was relentless, in its aggressiveness and rapid-fire rotations, and by the fourth period Portland's offense was tentative. Even without Rodman, Detroit forced 20 turnovers.
Then there was the Laimbeer factor. Sunday's game had to set some kind of record for the number of times a heavy-legged center gummed up the opponents' works. The human monkey wrench has the ability, perhaps unique in the NBA, to draw fouls both legitimately (by establishing position, assuming a strong base and putting both hands straight up in the air to get a charge) and illegitimately (by falling to the floor as if struck by lightning at the slightest contact on or off the ball). Laimbeer got calls by both methods on Sunday, and by late in the fourth period, Portland power forward Buck Williams was so frustrated that in plain sight of the officials he simply stiff-armed Laimbeer to the floor. Laimbeer went sprawling—perhaps 80% from the force of the forearm and 20% from thespianism—and Buck went to the bench with his sixth foul. Forty-six seconds later, Laimbeer also fouled out, having most assuredly gotten his money's worth in the game. As he departed to boos and hoots, he bowed to the crowd.
Later, Laimbeer left the locker room wearing a black Blues Brothers-style hat that Aguirre had given him. "I figured I might as well wear the hat that fits my role," said Laimbeer. The hat didn't exactly fit his blue shirt and his blue polyester slacks ensemble, but that's Laimbeer.
Meanwhile, over in the Blazer locker room the talk was of poor team defense (the Pistons, who rely on a moderate tempo, rarely score more than 120 points), poor shooting (the Blazers were 41.9% from the floor) and poor refereeing. Forward Jerome Kersey: "He chests up, puts you off-balance, and the refs just swallow the whistle." Center Kevin Duckworth: "I'm sitting there on the bench [Duckworth had five fouls] because of the bull-crap he puts you through." And Williams: "I'm going to work on my flopping technique. I felt he did a great job with it." The "he" in all three cases was, of course, Laimbeer.
The root issue for Portland throughout the remainder of the series, though, will not be what Laimbeer can get away with or whether the Pistons will be able to sway the officials in their direction. What the Blazers have to do is keep from getting distracted by the side issues and maintain their composure under the constant, frenetic pressure of the Piston defense.
They did not do it in Game 1, when they blew a 10-point lead in the final seven minutes. "We know we let one get away," said point guard Terry Porter, and somewhere deep down the haughty Pistons were thinking, It's over. We've got these guys' number.
But there were signs that Detroit was not on top of its game. Forward James Edwards (nine points) lived up to his nickname of Buddha by playing like a statue. Off the bench Johnson (0 for 6) and Aguirre (5 of 14) laid nothing but brick. Only the individual brilliance of Thomas, who scored 16 points in the final 6:49, pulled Detroit through.
Before the series, Thomas had remarked that Porter was the first point guard he would face in the playoffs that "is my equal or even better." Yeah, right. Isiah believes that about as far as he can throw the 290-pound Duckworth, and the line was clearly a setup. Thomas was truly remarkable in that clutch run, hitting two high-degree-of-difficulty three-pointers with Porter's hand right in his face. Said Portland coach Rick Adelman bluntly, "If Isiah continues to make those shots down the stretch, they're going to win."
In Game 2, it was Laimbeer making those kinds of shots. The Piston center had breezed into the locker room that evening feeling content after a successful morning of bass fishing. Laimbeer-haters would have gagged as he proudly flashed a Polaroid of his five-year-old son, Eric, holding a 15½-inch largemouth. "Eric caught it himself," said Laimbeer.
Later, Adelman almost gagged when Laimbeer hit an improbable 26-foot three-pointer, his sixth of the game, with 4.1 seconds left in overtime to give Detroit a 105-104 lead. As soon as the shot went through, Aguirre, never known as Mr. Court Presence, ran to embrace Laimbeer, and Laimbeer pushed him away angrily. "Look!" said Laimbeer, pointing up at the clock. "There's still time!"
And there was. Adelman called timeout—once he recovered from the near-swoon he went into after Laimbeer's shot—and touched the sword to Clyde Drexler's shoulder. Now, if Clyde the Glide has never exactly been called a choker during his seven-year career neither does his name pop up as a player known for rising to the occasion. But he did this time. He drove hard to the basket, forcing the overmatched, limping Rodman to stop him with a forceful hand check, and referee Hue Hollins called the foul, certainly one of the gutsiest playoff whistles in quite a while, considering that Portland was playing on the road. Drexler made both shots and the Blazers won 106-105, ending the Pistons' streak of 14 home playoff victories over two seasons.
"Last time, Isiah was in the 'Isiah Zone,' " said Drexler, who had 33 points. "Tonight I was in the 'Clyde Zone.' "
Rodman was in the inconsolable zone. Ninety minutes after the game he sat by his locker in the otherwise deserted Piston dressing room, blinking back tears, occasionally stroking his grotesquely swollen left ankle. "I keep trying to kid myself that this thing is going to do better," said Rodman, almost in a whisper, "but this is the worst it's felt in a while. I keep putting us in a hole. I'm just taking up space out there." He had eight rebounds in the game but scored only one point.
Should Daly have put Dumars on Drexler for that final play? Sure, as it turned out. But Rodman has created so many defensive miracles in the past two years that it was the logical move, bum ankle or not. "And besides," said Dumars, "we weren't sure that Clyde would take the shot. Personally, I thought they would go to Porter, and I was checking him."
Porter on that night turned in one of the sweetest bad-shooting playoff games of all time. He made only 3 of 11 shots from the floor but hit an NBA Finals-record 15 of 15 from the foul line while collecting 10 assists. And he committed only one turnover and one personal foul. Thomas had 23 points and 11 assists but also had seven turnovers and fouled out with 1:10 left in regulation. Porter was asked after the game how it felt for Drexler and him to outplay what many believe to be the best backcourt tandem (Thomas-Dumars) in the game.
"Tell you the truth," said Porter, "I think Clyde and I are the best."
Later, Adelman slipped up behind Porter, slapped him on the back and said, "Nice game, KEVIN." Porter smiled and said, "You too, AID-elman." It has been an ongoing joke between the two because Porter is often misidentified as former NBA point guard Kevin Porter, and the correct pronunciation of Adelman's last name (ADD-el-man) is bungled more often than not. In this series the Blazers have pounced on all sorts of psychological gimmicks—the no-names versus the Bad Boys, the gutty underdogs versus the reigning champions, etc.
And in Game 2 the psychology appeared to be working. Somewhat unknown when the Finals began, the Blazers were now, suddenly, the new and delightful kids on the block. Detractors of Isiah found much virtue in the lunch-bucket style of Porter. With his Game 2 heroics, Drexler seemed finally ready to take his place among the game's glitterati. Observers marveled at the deft shooting touch of Duckworth, when they weren't marveling at the sheer square footage of his rear end. The unpredictable European moves of Blazer reserve Drazen Petrovic suddenly seemed so much more formidable when weighed against the awful shooting of Vinnie Johnson. And gee, did anyone deserve a championship ring more than good ol' hardworking Buck Williams, who had wasted so much time and so much energy all those years with the New Jersey Nets?
"I don't think America has warmed to us completely yet," said Williams after Game 2. "But if we keep playing like this, we'll open America's eyes."
Unfortunately for the Blazers, they also opened Detroit's eyes wide for Game 3, and a wide-awake Piston is a dangerous Piston. At week's end the confident smirk was back on the faces of the Pistons, and Laimbeer was just daring the Blazers to knock that black hat off his head.