SI Vault
Jack McCallum
June 20, 1988
After a stunning opening-game loss at home to the Pistons, the Lakers bounced back to take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals
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June 20, 1988

Still Up For Grabs

After a stunning opening-game loss at home to the Pistons, the Lakers bounced back to take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals

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Riley was also informed that a couple of Lakers had talked about not being "mentally prepared" for Game 1. He wasn't amused. "That's a cop-out," he said. "I think we got our butts kicked, and we were looking around for something to blame."

Things were going swimmingly for the Pistons. Before their afternoon workout, Salley continued the documentary film of the finals he's shooting with his videocamera. "Leeches, parasites, media hordes!" he shouted jokingly as he panned a crowded Detroit locker room. Then he shut off the camera. "Now, what was the question?" he said, turning on his comedy act.

Daly, meanwhile, described what he expected from the Lakers in Game 2. "Fatal Attraction II," he told one questioner. "Rambo IV," he told another. "Hey, we're in Hollywood."

What the Pistons got from Los Angeles in Game 2 was a little Nightmare on Elm Street. The 24-second clock ran out on Detroit on its first possession. That was a harbinger of the trouble the Pistons would have all night against the Lakers' swarming, alert defense. Detroit's lack of size at the guard position—Thomas is 6'1", Dumars 6'3", Vinnie Johnson 6'2"—works to the Lakers' advantage on the trap. Magic (6'9") and Cooper (6'7") put up a forest of pressure on the outside, and the Piston guards seemed hesitant to make the sharp cuts toward the basket necessary to beat the trap. They feared running into Green or James Worthy, both of whom stand 6'9", or even into 7'2" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when Riley uses him in the trap.

Los Angeles did an excellent job of keeping Dantley (19 points for the game) and Thomas (13) from reaching what Riley calls "the launching pad"—an area near the foul line about 17 feet from the basket. The Lakers never pulled away, but an Abdul-Jabbar skyhook that barely beat the 24-second clock with 2:44 remaining gave them a 95-90 lead and the impetus to hold off the Pistons in the stretch. With 23 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists, Johnson was once again the steadiest Laker, even though he had spent most of the day fighting a fever.

As he talked about his bout with the flu, drops of water fell from ice packs resting on both of his aching knees and on both of his previously injured Achilles tendons. And don't forget that a strained right groin kept him out of 10 regular-season games and reportedly still bothers him. Still, Magic says he's feeling just fine, and just fine was the way he played in Games 1 and 2.

By Sunday he was ready for a homecoming in Michigan, where he was born, in Lansing, and played his college ball, at Michigan State. His father, Earvin Sr., who has a fear of flying, would be watching him live in a final-round series for the first time, and his mother, Christine, would be making fried chicken, potato salad, rolls, salads, a cake and sweet potato pie for postgame consumption. The feast has become such a tradition with the Lakers on their annual regular-season visit to Detroit that after their defeat of Dallas in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, the cry that went up in the locker room wasn't "Beat Deetroit!" but "Sweet potato pie!"

Magic retained his business face before Game 3, however, rejecting calls and visits from old friends and spending most of his time around the Guest Quarters, the Laker hotel about 10 miles from the Silverdome. On Sunday he played even better than he had in Games 1 and 2, finishing with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting, 14 assists and six rebounds. The performance was both efficient and spectacular. Consider this three-play sequence in the second quarter:

Magic dribbles downcourt, goes between his legs twice and then throws in a running hook. The next time Magic comes down the court, Dumars, who was guarding him, plays off him to better protect against the drive—you would, too, after going through the previous torture—so Johnson pulls up and drills an 18-footer. Next time, Magic is under heavy pressure on the right side as the Pistons seem to have all his options covered. But he spots Green starting to cut toward the basket on the left side, looks off the defense, a la John Elway, by turning his head toward the foul line, and then whips what seems to be a blind pass to Green, who scores on a layup. "You have to keep your eyes on Magic all the time," said Worthy later, "lest you get hit upside the head."

By the end of the third quarter, the Lakers' defensive trap had turned a one-point halftime lead into a 78-64 advantage. On the Pistons' first four possessions of the quarter, Thomas and Dumars (twice) misfired from outside, and Salley missed on an awkward drive in heavy traffic. After Game 2, Detroit complained that the Lakers had played an illegal defense by switching out of the mandatory man-to-man into a 2-3 zone once the Pistons broke the trap. For the record, Laker assistant coach Bill Bertka called that "a lot of crap." Well, was it a zone? Sure, at times.

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