1989 NBA Finals: Detroit 4, L.A. Lakers 0
Waiting Game Ends for Impatient Pistons
Although the Pistons were winning their way through the regular season, it soon became obvious that they weren't playing all that well together. Thomas speculated that the team was struggling offensively because it was playing so well defensively. He wanted to pick up the tempo, an obvious solution to the doldrums, but that would take the team further away from Adrian Dantley's halfcourt post game. The team split on this issue, headed in two different directions.
Aguirre had speeded up the offense, and it was something the players noticed almost immediately. Thomas, who had never played organized basketball with Aguirre before, was as surprised as the rest. Rather than waiting for Dantley to work his unique offensive style, the Pistons found themselves benefitting from Aguirre's passing. Eager to fit in, the 6-foot-6 forward was the offensive threat Detroit needed inside to force the double-team. As soon as the second defender arrived, Aguirre dumped off the ball and the Pistons' perimeter game did the rest.
The Pistons had never before entered the playoffs as the dominant team in basketball. Then again, no other team had been in the league so long without winning a title. Fred Zollner had founded the club in 1941 to play in the old National Basketball League in Fort Wayne, Ind., naming the team for his product. The Fort Wayne Pistons won a series of titles in the old league in the early 1940s, then joined the NBA for 1947-48. In 1955 and again in 1956 the Pistons went to the NBA Finals, but they lost both times. They moved to Detroit in 1957 but generated little forward momentum. For the next 25 years the Pistons didn't even make the playoffs.
The Los Angeles Lakers, of course, had even bigger dreams. They had finished the regular season at 57-25, and coach Pat Riley had gone so far as to patent his "Three-peat" slogan in hopes of cashing in on the souvenir market. His prospects for big royalties seemed to improve with each round of the playoffs.
The Detroit papers had fun with the Pistons-Lakers rematch in the Finals, calling it "the Sequel." As things turned out, it certainly had the properties of one -- big on staging, hype, promotion and plenty of talent.
At the outset, the potential for drama seemed high. The 42-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had announced his retirement effective at the close of the season. The Lakers hoped to send him out with another ring. It wasn't hard to imagine Los Angeles stealing a third title and the "Bad Boys" condemned to the role of the perpetual bridesmaid. But just before Game 1 in Detroit, Lakers guard Byron Scott suffered a severe hamstring injury in practice. He would miss at least the first two games.
The Pistons further emphasized this by smoking the Lakers in Game 1, with the Pistons' guards popping from every place on the floor. Thomas had 24 points, Joe Dumars 22 and Vinnie Johnson 19. Coach Chuck Daly was ecstatic; during the Chicago series, the backcourt had shot less than 40 percent from the field.
With six minutes left, Detroit led 97-79 and the final score was 109-97. "We played probably our best playoff game," Daly said afterward. "We were aggressive offensively and defensively, particularly on offense."
As Daly had expected, the Lakers snapped right back in Game 2, pounding the boards and taking a strong first-quarter lead. But Dumars got hot with 24 points in the first half (he would finish with 33) to keep Detroit close. Los Angeles held a 62-56 lead at intermission; Michael Cooper, Scott's backup, was hitting and Magic Johnson had that look in his eye.
But events turned in the third quarter. With about four minutes left, a John Salley block of a Mychal Thompson shot started a Detroit fast break. Magic dropped back to play defense, and in so doing, pulled his hamstring. He sensed immediately that the injury was serious and flailed at the air in frustration. He hobbled off the court and did not return.
The Pistons had made the bucket on the break to tie the game at 75, but the Lakers charged to a 90-81 lead late in the third quarter. But Detroit had owned the fourth through most of the playoffs, and Game 2 was no different. The Lakers opened the period with three missed baskets and an offensive foul as Detroit first tied the game, then went up 102-95.
Next it was the Pistons' turn to miss and mess up, as Thompson led a Los Angeles comeback. The final snafu came with a 24-second violation by Detroit, giving the Lakers the ball with eight seconds left. Down 106-104, they had a chance to tie or win it. The tie seemed a cinch when James Worthy was fouled and went to the line.
There, however, the exhaustion caught up with the MVP of the previous year's Finals. He missed the first and made the second, leaving the Lakers short at 106-105. Thomas then hit two free throws with a second remaining for the final 108-105 score.
Things looked good for the Pistons with a 2-1 series lead, only nobody was saying that as the teams headed to Los Angeles. But the immediate speculation centered on Magic. Could he play? He tried, but he had to leave Game 3 after just five minutes of the first quarter with the Lakers leading, 11-8. "I wanted to play so bad, but I just could not," Johnson said later. "I could not make the cuts, defensively, that I had to make."
"He made a heck of an effort," Dumars observed, "but it just wasn't there. You could tell by his motion. One time, the ball was right there a couple feet away, and he just couldn't get it."
Without Magic, the Lakers still played like a championship contender. Worthy scored 26 points, and Abdul-Jabbar played like a much younger man, contributing 24 points and 13 rebounds. The only veteran in the backcourt, Cooper, had 13 assists and 15 points. But it wasn't enough.
For starters, there was Detroit's Dennis Rodman. Wracked by painful back spasms, he ripped down 19 rebounds between gasps, going to the sideline for rubdowns, then coming back in to worm his way inside the Lakers' interior defense for offensive boards.
Isiah pitched in with 26 points and eight assists. Much of his best work came in the clutch -- six key points and three assists. The only problem was, so did his only real mistakes of the afternoon, including a bad pass with the Pistons leading 103-102. Still, things seemed pretty secure with 2:06 left when the Microwave hit one of his big-time jumpers to give Detroit a 109-104 lead.
The Pistons maintained that five-point margin until 15 seconds remained, when Thomas allowed A.C. Green to tie him up and steal the ball. Thomas then fouled Lakers rookie point guard David Rivers, who made both free throws, pulling Los Angeles to within three at 113-110 with 13 seconds left. Dumars came back in the game at that point, and with nine seconds left he tipped the ball out of bounds, giving the Lakers a shot at the tie.
Prior to this game, Rivers had played only eight minutes in the playoffs, none of it in the clutch. But with the injuries to Magic and Scott the rookie suddenly found himself with lots of prime time. Now, he was the first option on a last-second three-pointer.
"He got away from me," Dumars said of Rivers. "I let up a little because when he broke, I let him go. I thought, 'He can't be the first option, so I am going to take a look and see where the ball is going.' I turned back and the ball was going right to him. Then I knew I had to react. I knew he wouldn't be going to the goal because they needed three. I can't even think of the last time I blocked a shot. It was just instinct. I was a good ways from him. It's amazing what you do in pressure situations."
From about eight feet to Rivers' right, Dumars wheeled and lunged at the shot. Not only did he block it, he then landed and saved it from going out of bounds.
"That was a First Team All-Defensive play right there," Pistons center Bill Laimbeer said afterward. "To block the shot. ... Yeah, everybody blocks shots, but to block the shot and save the ball to your teammate -- that's a big play. That's a play you win championships with."
Not to mention MVP Awards. The writers began asking the reserved Dumars if he had thought about taking the Finals MVP honors. "It would be great," he admitted. "I don't want to downplay it, but championship rings -- that's what you play for."
The defensive play seemed to seal the award for Dumars, especially when combined with his offensive outburst. "I just happened to get into one of those zones where a couple of shots went down and I wanted to touch the ball every time it came down the floor," he said of his third-quarter scoring.
"Was it a case where you would talk to Isiah and say, 'I'm hot,'" a writer asked, "or does he just know that?"
"He knows it," said Dumars. "At one point he asked me, 'What do you want?' meaning what play did I want. I said, 'Just the ball.' That's about how it was, 'Just give me the ball.'"
Down three games to none, the Lakers still talked of making history -- specifically, becoming the first team ever to overcome a three-game deficit. Tony Campbell, the reserve guard who had filled in admirably for Scott, asserted that such a comeback was in the works. Wiser voices weren't quite so optimistic.
"It's like you have a real nice sports car and a great driver," Kareem said of the circumstances, "and then all of a sudden you have to find somebody who has been driving a bus to be a driver. That's a learning experience."
The Lakers knew things would be tough. Riley told Worthy he would have to up his game a few notches and get them a win. Riley reminded Worthy how his efforts had paid off in 1988. And Worthy responded with a championship effort of 40 points on 17-of-26 field-goal shooting with Rick Mahorn in his face every step of the way. But Worthy couldn't do it alone.
The crowd had come expecting an event-Abdul-Jabbar's final game. The big center had conducted his final warm-up, his bald pate glistening under the Forum lights. He was composed, spending much of the session standing silently in a half-slouch, his hand on his hip. He dropped in one final finger-roll and headed over to the bench. With that signal, the team had followed, igniting a round of applause that spread across the Forum crowd.
Once the game started, the pattern was familiar. Mahorn and Cooper mixed it up in the first period, drawing a double technical. With Worthy playing out of his mind, the Lakers took a 35-23 lead at the end of the first. Detroit missed free throws like they were dental appointments, 11 in all in the first half. But Vinnie Johnson made one to close out the first-half scoring with Los Angeles leading 55-49 at intermission.
The Pistons started fast in the third quarter, beginning with an opening trey by Laimbeer. Mahorn then scored four quick points and the Pistons took a 59-58 lead moments later when Dumars hit a driving bank shot, drew the foul and made the free throw, giving him 19 points on the evening. Mahorn followed that with another bucket, and suddenly it was timeout, Lakers.
When Worthy blasted them back into the lead later in the quarter, the crowd chanted "Three-peat." It was a Hollywood dream that would never see the light of reality. The Lakers held a 78-76 lead at the end of the third, but they knew the Pistons were coming on. Everyone in the building knew it. The Pistons turned the chores over to James Edwards, who slammed and picked his way along, giving Detroit the lead in the process. As the Pistons' momentum increased, the Lakers appeared drained.
When Detroit got the ball back with 3:23 left and a 100-94 lead the crowd rose to a standing ovation, more a note of thanks than a plea for a miracle. Abdul-Jabbar came back in the game, but neither team was playing well. The next two minutes were an exchange of missed shots and turnovers.
At 1:37, Abdul-Jabbar broke the chill with a spin move and bank shot, his last two NBA points, cutting the Pistons' margin to 100-96. "The Big Guy" went out with 47 seconds remaining. Then Laimbeer hit a jumper at the 28-second mark, and the Pistons figured it was safe to start hugging during the ensuing timeout. Mahorn stood in the midst of this outbreak, a towel draped over his shoulders, and slowly rotated, looking up into the crowd. Then he raised his arms in triumph. Laimbeer was shouting "it-ain't-over-'til-it's-over" kinds of things. Dumars just sat quietly, his face pressed into a towel.
Riley sent Abdul-Jabbar back in after the timeout, but Cooper missed a three-pointer and Isiah got fouled. Riley sent Orlando Woolridge in for "the Captain." It was hug time for the Lakers. Magic came out to meet Abdul-Jabbar. The crowd's applause was warm, and the Pistons all stepped onto the floor, faced the Lakers' bench and joined in.
Then Aguirre suddenly grabbed Thomas and began squeezing his head. Somehow Isiah escaped. Then he turned, hugged Daly and cried openly for the cameras. Daly later said he forced a tear or two himself, but it looked like a little more than that. "Free throws. Let's go," Daly said, breaking the spell. Isiah went back to the line. Soon it was over, 105-97. "Kareem, Kareem, Kareem," the crowd intoned again and again.
As expected, Dumars was named the Finals MVP. Prior to the '89 playoffs, the 6-foot-3 guard was considered one of the best-kept secrets in basketball, primarily because he played in Isiah's shadow. But in the aftermath of the championship, Dumars was swept away in a tide of celebrity. Normally a controlled, measured man, he struggled to keep his emotions in check amid the din of celebration in the Pistons' locker room.
After all, his teammates were the Bad Boys, and Dumars was their resident Good Guy. He played steady defense, provided outbursts of scoring when necessary, and otherwise blended into the background. On a roster bristling with personalities, Dumars was inordinately plain. "I can understand," he said, "that people want to see the fancy stuff. But, believe me, we've got enough fancy stuff on the Detroit Pistons where I don't have to be fancy."
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