This season's early checkpoint game for the Los Angeles Lakers took place not on the creaking parquet floor of Boston Garden, as it usually does, but at a new $80 million suburban arena known as The Palace of Auburn Hills. Saturday night's matchup, the first regular-season NBA game to be nationally televised in prime time since 1972, was significant not only because the Lakers and the Pistons were the two teams left standing at the end of last season, but also because Detroit has become the principal—perhaps the only—foil for L.A. And also because, let's face it, a Lakers-Pistons game is the only sporting event in these United States in which smooching is part of the story.
"In time, yes, this could be a rivalry like L.A.-Boston," said the Lakers' Magic Johnson, one of the lovebirds, "and the way you establish that is by having games like this." Well, not really. It was certainly a tense and engaging affair, but it was no classic. Don't think the Lakers weren't prepared for the Pistons' physical style of play. At a practice session on Friday, L.A. coach Pat Riley instructed his defenders to "foul as hard as you want." But the game more or less followed the example set by Magic and his Detroit buddy, Isiah Thomas, who twice exchanged kisses on the cheek, once during the taping of a CBS promo on Saturday morning and again on the court just before tipoff.
After Magic's three-point shot bounced off the backboard with about five seconds remaining and his second last-gasp attempt was swatted away by his kissin' cousin, the Pistons had beaten the Lakers 102-99. Certainly Detroit was happy with the victory, but if the Pistons were looking to make a big statement—i.e., we're the team to beat and you're not—they failed.
For one thing, Detroit should have been able to take better advantage of a bruised knee that Magic suffered while trying to block an Adrian Dantley layup during the first quarter. The sore knee limited Johnson to 32 minutes of play. For another, the Pistons repeatedly had trouble penetrating the Lakers' half-court trap and now must worry about their ability to work successfully against pressure defenses. The net effect of these negatives was that Riley was able to say, correctly, in defeat, "Any loss stings a little, but I don't think anything definitive was proved tonight."
The Lakers and Pistons didn't have to prove that they're the class of the NBA these days. Everyone already knew it. Detroit's 10-2 record, the best in the league as of Sunday, had been carved out largely on the road, where it was 7-1, while Los Angeles's 8-3 record at week's end manifested a steady-as-she-goes takeoff for the uncertain flight toward a third straight championship. Keep in mind, though, that L.A.'s station atop the league is far less secure than Detroit's. Should the Lakers lose Magic, his backcourt partner Byron Scott or shooting forward James Worthy for long, they'll be in trouble.
By contrast, the Pistons have the resources to plug any hole. Thomas goes down? Joe Dumars can run the show for a while. Small forward Dantley goes down? That would mean more scoring opportunities for Dumars and supersub Vinnie Johnson and more playing time for Dennis Rodman, whose pogo-stick offensive rebounding keyed the win over the Lakers. Piston coach Chuck Daly can, and does, make so many substitutions at so many positions that center Bill Laimbeer was playing shooting guard for a few minutes against L.A.
Riley pooh-poohs the notion that Detroit's depth gives it a distinct advantage over Los Angeles. "There were times in last year's finals—Games 6 and 7 [both Laker victories], for example—when our starters really took advantage of their second unit," says Riley. "Depth will help them during the regular season, no doubt about it. But the playoffs are a different matter."
Riley is kidding himself, however, if he thinks the Pistons' second unit isn't stronger this season. In Saturday's game, for example, the trio of Rodman, Johnson and John Salley shot .565 (13 of 23), a much better percentage than the .366 (15 of 41) clanked up by starters Dantley, Laimbeer and Thomas. And though Riley's point about exploiting Detroit's second unit in Games 6 and 7 is well-taken, it may not be so easily done this season, should there be a repeat championship series. Daly will be giving his subs key minutes in tight games, and they're bound to mature.
Rodman, for one, was on the floor down the stretch on Saturday. With 14 seconds left and the Pistons leading by 101-99, he went high above the crowd to grab a Thomas miss—the rebound was Rodman's fifth of the game off the offensive board—and then dribbled madly out of the pack like a kid fleeing with a stolen apple. Laimbeer then hit one of two free throws with eight seconds left for the final margin of victory.
"Offensive rebounding just comes natural to me," says Rodman, who followed up his last effort off the boards with, oh, maybe half a minute of his distinctive finger pointing, which rallies the home crowd and irritates opponents. "Sometimes I probably go over the top on my man, but I don't get called on it a lot. See, I tap the ball to myself, and that throws the referee off."