The Los Angeles Lakers and the Detroit Pistons swept into this season's championship series as vastly different fronts on the NBA weather map. The former was a familiar, well-charted high-pressure area, the latter, an ominous, unpredictable storm center. No one was sure what would happen when the systems collided, and, indeed, the first five games produced no pattern. The Pistons won Games 1, 4 and 5 by an average of almost 16 points, while the Lakers won Games 2 and 3 by 12 and 13 points, respectively. None of the encounters was particularly dramatic.
On Sunday at the Forum in Ingle-wood, Calif., however, Showtown and Motown finally played themselves a classic in Game 6. The Lakers prevailed 103-102 to tie the series at three games apiece and force a decisive seventh game. Over the past year Los Angeles coach Pat Riley has talked frequently about the Lakers' having the opportunity to leave "footprints" by becoming the first NBA team to win back-to-back championships since the powerful Boston Celtics of 1968 and '69. But this exquisitely tense sixth game, "the most interesting game that I've ever been in," according to Los Angeles's Magic Johnson, had more to do with fingernails than footprints. The Lakers just barely held on.
As for the Pistons, late into Sunday night they were preoccupied with an ankle, specifically Isiah Thomas's right one. While conducting a clinic on playground-style basketball in the third quarter, Thomas sustained a severe sprain to the ankle and was listed as "doubtful" for Game 7. Then again, it seemed doubtful that anyone, even someone with a biblical name, could score an NBA Finals-record 25 points in one quarter against the Lakers in their building. But that's what Thomas did as he shot Detroit, which had trailed 53-46 at halftime, to an 81-79 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Hobbling and in obvious pain, Thomas then cooled off a bit, but a 17-foot jumper—his 42nd and 43rd points of the game—followed by two free throws from his backcourt mate, Joe Dumars, put the Pistons ahead 102-99 with a minute left. L.A. took timeout and huddled. Detroit mentally uncorked the champagne that was waiting in its locker room. "Anticipating it?" said Pistons swingman Dennis Rodman later. "I was way beyond that. I was saying, 'We got it now.' "
They didn't. The Lakers' Byron Scott had it now, and he made a 12-foot jump shot to bring Los Angeles within one, 102-101. Detroit then went to Thomas, natch. He took a similar shot (jumper from left corner) under similar circumstances (with L.A.'s Michael Cooper in his face) that completed his remarkable outburst in the third quarter. But this time he missed, and James Worthy of the Lakers grabbed the rebound with 27 seconds remaining.
After another timeout, Los Angeles went right to Magic. His path to the basket was cut off, so he whipped the ball to Scott, who dumped it inside to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who swung his body into that majestic set of mechanics known as the skyhook. Detroit center Bill Laimbeer had had success throughout the series in countering that shot by slightly bumping Abdul-Jabbar as he went into I his windup, thereby disturbing his rhythm. Even on Sunday, Abdul-Jabbar was only 3 of 14 from the field. This time, however, Laimbeer bumped too hard, and he was whistled for a foul, his sixth, as Abdul-Jabbar's shot from the right baseline bounced off the far rim.
The other Laker starters—Johnson, Worthy, Scott and A.C. Green—all had higher free throw percentages than Abdul-Jabbar this season. But was there anyone else Riley would rather have had on the line in this clutch situation than his 41-year-old center? "I couldn't choose between Kareem and Buck [Johnson]," said Riley after the game, "because they've been there so many times." Sure enough, the 7,608th and 7,609th successful free throws of Abdul-Jabbar's 19-year career gave Los Angeles a 103-102 lead with 14 seconds remaining.
Detroit had one last chance to win, and Thomas, gimpy ankle and all, was the first option. But just after Adrian Dantley tossed the ball inbounds to Dumars, Dantley collided with Thomas, and both went down. For the Pistons, the collision was an eerie flashback to last year's seventh-game loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. In that game Dantley was sidelined after running into teammate Vinnie Johnson. This time nobody left the game, but the damage was considerable in another way.
"Once Isiah fell, I was all over him," said Cooper on Sunday. "I didn't want him to get the ball." Dantley got up, but Dumars, the second option, took it to the basket. "I never get the plays at the end of the game," said Dantley, the series' leading scorer through six games with a 22.2 average. "That's just the makeup of this team." Dumars got by his man, Scott, and leaned in for a one-hander in the lane as Green came over to lend defensive help. The shot was too hard and bounced off the glass, but Rodman, who had pulled down three offensive rebounds in only 23 minutes of playing time, grabbed the ball. However, he couldn't hold on to it; it slithered off his hands, and with it went the Pistons' chances of winning in six.
After the game Abdul-Jabbar tried to describe what was going through his mind when he was standing at the foul line with 14 seconds to go. "I just went through my usual routine and kept my mind clear," said Kareem, who made 8 of 8 free throws on the day. At the same time, Johnson was describing, in Magicese, the performance of Thomas, who was called Johnson's "little buddy" so often during the series that you sometimes had the feeling you were listening to reruns of Gilligan 's Island.