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Jack McCallum
June 12, 1989
There are six keys to the Pistons-Lakers series, with an NBA title in the balance
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June 12, 1989

The Final Agenda

There are six keys to the Pistons-Lakers series, with an NBA title in the balance

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Will either team intimidate the other? Hardly. The Pistons' black-hat image may be big news—and big business—in Detroit, where more than 70,000 copies of a Laimbeer-Rick Mahorn Bad Boy poster have sold in a month. (The two Bad Boys themselves bought the rights to the Rolling Stone photo from which the poster was made, donating to charity the profits from the first 20,000 sold. So far their donation is around $50,000.) But the Pistons' image will have little or no effect on the Lakers. Neither is Detroit likely to be blinded by the Laker championship aura, as the Pistons no doubt were when they lost Games 6 and 7 in the Forum in last year's Finals. Home court advantage is much more important than aura, and this time around it belongs to the Pistons. The Pistons also had the upper hand in their two games with the Lakers during the regular season. The Pistons won 102-99 at home on Nov. 26 and then beat the Lakers 111-103 in the Forum on Valentine's Day. "That's all in the history book, but that part of the book is closed now. The future isn't going to be predicated on the past," Riley says.

So, what will be the key factors in the Finals? Here are six of them:

Tempo—Despite L.A.'s near-flawless half-court execution against Phoenix, the Pistons still fear the Laker fast break most of all. Perhaps it's not what it used to be, but as much as any team in basketball (with the possible exception of the Suns, and look what happened to them), the Lakers can catch a wave and ride it over the opposition, all the way to shore.

To stop L.A. from running. Detroit must do a number of obvious things—it must take good shots, get to the free throw line and hit the offensive boards. (The Pistons do only the last of these with consistency.) But they must also try to "jam" the Laker rebounder (i.e., surround him in order to break up a potential outlet pass) and stop Magic in his tracks, before he shifts into overdrive. (Probably the team most committed to doing those two things is Seattle, and the Sonics, like Phoenix, fell to the Lakers in four.) Indeed, it is one thing to theorize about stopping Magic and quite another to actually halt his spins, behind-the-back dribbles and plain brute strength, all of which get him from one end of the court to the other in complete control.

The Pistons, on the other hand, function best on Central Division Standard Time. "Slow it down, grind it out, get the Lakers in a half-court, execution-type game," says Laimbeer. "That's what we want to do." Going into Game 1 of the Finals, the Pistons had not allowed 100 points in any playoff game and were 47-4 for the season whenever they held the opposition under 100. Simply stated, the Lakers are not likely to win by an 88-85 score, any more than the Pistons are likely to beat L.A. 125-121.

"The Lakers and Pistons present the league's best contrast in terms of how to use the clock," says Brendan Suhr, a Piston assistant coach. "It's going to be very, very interesting to see which team can impose its tempo on the other."

The trap—Picture a man lost in a forest thick with trees. Suddenly, the trees start moving, this way and that, frantically, creating confusion with diabolical efficiency. That's kind of what it's like to be lost in the middle of the Laker trap, and there's no easy way home.

When the Lakers run their trap well, Riley sees before him his vision of the perfect basketball team—five superbly conditioned 6'9" athletes (so Mychal Thompson is 6'10") running and jumping, harassing in concert all over the court. Some combination of Worthy, A.C. Green, Magic. Orlando Wool-ridge and Thompson can be devastating, and just in case the opposition tries to break out. Michael Cooper (6'7") and Byron Scott (6'4") are there for added protection. The trap serves the Lakers best when it is used to pick up the tempo by forcing turnovers and creating fast-break baskets. Riley uses it judiciously, and therein lies part of its efficacy.

However, if the Pistons can pass the ball quickly and smartly around the perimeter of the trap and get a wide-open jumper with only three or four seconds left on the 24-second clock, then the Laker trap is, in effect, merely slowing down the game and establishing Piston tempo.

The old pick-and-roll—Focus on Laimbeer as he plants himself at the top of the key, moving slightly, ever so slightly, to pick off Thomas's man. Laimbeer will not then roll to the basket but, rather, will flare away from it in position for a long jumper should Thomas get the ball to him. The Lakers, meanwhile, run the pick-and-roll best when Thompson sets the pick for Magic and cuts to the basket in the classic manner, as soon as he feels contact (or sometimes before). Thompson "slips well," as Laimbeer puts it. The key, of course, is that a 6'9" guard is making the pass and going under, around, over or between two defenders, as he deems necessary.

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