The Los Angeles Lakers have looked a little faded in recent weeks, often seeming to show up in pallid lavender and yellow rather than regal purple and gold. After all, both the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks extended them to seven games in the Western Conference playoffs. Though the cast of characters that carried L.A. to the NBA championship last season remained intact, the Lakers began to look as if they weren't up to the task of repeating, especially with those black-hearted marauders, the Detroit Pistons, lying in wait. Sure enough, on June 7, Los Angeles lost Game 1 of the NBA Finals at home by a score of 105-93.
Suddenly, though, the image began to brighten in Game 2, a must-win affair for the Lakers at the Forum two nights later. They came out like small-game hunters, setting little defensive traps all over the court and catching the Pistons time and time again. The result was a series-tying 108-96 victory for L.A.
Then came Game 3. Poof! A perfect picture. These were the Lakers of old. With the Greater Detroit area going gaga over its first NBA championship series game ever, L.A. swaggered into the Pontiac Silverdome on Sunday afternoon and left with a 99-86 win. The Lakers once again went to their trapping defense, and at the other end they rediscovered their autobahn fast break. In the game-turning third quarter, Los Angeles scored 22 points off 13 fastbreak opportunities and simply ran away and hid, just as the Lakers are supposed to do.
"We kept searching for something out of our own offense, and we simply forgot to get back on defense," said Piston center Bill Laimbeer after the game. Imagine forgetting that the Lakers can run. Here's something else for Detroit to consider: If it's going to win its first NBA title, it will have to do so in L.A., where Games 6 and 7 are scheduled to be played after this Tuesday's and Thursday's games in the Silverdome.
Surprisingly enough, that doesn't sound so bad to Piston coach Chuck Daly, who was ejected midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 for arguing too vociferously with referee Earl Strom. "Maybe we can't handle all the people [39,188 were at the Silverdome on Sunday] at our house," he said. "Who knows? But I've said that I've been happier on the road than at home in the playoffs."
Interesting, but certainly Daly could not have been happier with the pressure-be-damned attitude his club brought to Game 1. Reserve center Chuck Nevitt, who was a member of the 1984-85 Lakers, was the only Detroit player who had ever been in a championship series, yet none of the Pistons seemed nervous. Before the game, starting guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars admitted to each other that neither felt as if he were about to play anything except a regular-season game. "I said to Isiah, 'I wonder how you're supposed to feel,' " said Dumars later. "Maybe it was good that we didn't know."
The Pistons had even made inroads in the show-time department, theretofore the Lakers' special domain, before the game. Los Angeles is a town that always has a place for the new kid in town, and the Pistons' unreserved reserve, forward-center John Salley, was more than up to the role. On a whirlwind tour of comedy clubs, Salley had met several new but now very good friends, like Billy Crystal, Arnsenio Hall and Sam Kinison.
By game time, though, it was Adrian Dantley, the least show-time-type guy on the Piston roster, who took over the spotlight. He ripped the Lakers for 34 points on 14-of-16 shooting. Dantley's teammates call him Teach (as in Teacher) for the variety of meticulous moves he uses to get open. Indeed, he gave a semester's lesson to Los Angeles's A.C. Green. L.A. began by double-teaming Dantley, but abandoned the tactic when Dantley's passing led to several easy first-quarter buckets and then settled on a strategy of giving him single coverage, usually by Green, until he drove to the hoop, at which point he would receive extra attention. "We waited all right," said Laker assistant coach Randy Pfund. "We waited until the ball was in the basket."
When Dantley stuck in a layup off a feed from Thomas to give the Pistons a 92-75 lead with 6:00 left, it was as if a soundless fire alarm had gone off in the Forum—thousands of fans streamed to the exits. The Lakers hung around a little longer, but they couldn't get any closer than seven points. Not since 1981, when the Houston Rockets defeated Los Angeles in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, had the Lakers lost a home opener in postseason play.
The next day was not pleasant for L.A., either. Coach Pat Riley had pored over the game film deep into the night, and he awoke to find himself criticized in the newspapers for using only seven players to combat Detroit's nine-man rotation. To make matters worse, his two reserves, Michael Cooper and Mychal Thompson, had played like Michael Jackson. "I got news for you," said Riley at a press gathering. "We weren't playing nine against seven. We were playing nine against one." And that one, Magic Johnson, who finished with 28 points and 10 assists, had the flu and didn't practice before Game 2.