Both teams have lots of offensive sets. But their execution of this most basic play will have something to do with the outcome of the series.
•The Worthy-Mark Aguirre factor—Detroit's Aguirre will never be the equal of Worthy at small forward. The begoggled Laker is an underrated player at any time, and he's vastly more than that in the playoffs (in five of the last six seasons, including this one. his playoff scoring average has surpassed his regular-season standard). However, Aguirre cannot stand by and be a nonfactor if Worthy goes out and makes himself the best player on the floor, as he did in L.A.'s three previous series. In last year's Finals, Adrian Dantley's deliberate moves at small forward not only produced points for the Pistons but also made L.A. vulnerable to illegal-defense calls, rendering its trap much less effective than it might have been. Aguirre must be a potent low-post threat if Detroit is to solve the Laker defense. Now is the time for him to justify the Feb. 15 trade that brought him to Detroit and sent Dantley to Dallas.
As Aguirre hugged and danced with his good buddy Thomas at Chicago Stadium following Game 6 last Friday night, Thomas gave him this rather unusual message: "It was my game to get us to the Finals; now it's your job to win it for us." Clearly an overstatement, but there's more than a germ of truth in it.
•The battle of the "distorted matchups"—That's Detroit's term for the unusual defensive alignments the Lakers will no doubt employ, as they did in last year's Finals. Magic, a point guard, will check Laimbeer. a center. Worthy, a small forward, will defend against Dumars, a shooting guard. Abdul-Jabbar. a center, will stalk Mahorn, a power forward.
It will be interesting to see, first of all, if the Pistons can exploit the last of those matchups; Mahorn was practically invisible in the Chicago series, taking only 21 shots in six games while being checked primarily by Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant. The Pistons are accustomed to unusual matchups (most of them caused by Laimbeer's tendency to play a perimeter role on offense) and, by and large, do not let them disturb their offensive sets. The effect on their transition defense, however, is another matter. After a Laker steal or rebound, Laimbeer, who takes teeny-tiny steps in concrete shoes, might suddenly find himself beside Magic, though not for long. Dumars might be left to guard Worthy, who would be out on the break three or four steps sooner than usual because he is defending a guard. The Pistons must make quick defensive decisions, or the Lakers will overrun them.
•The benches—Last, but definitely not least. The Piston cast goes nine-deep, and it's a legit nine; the double-figure scoring of center James Edwards, ninth man in coach Chuck Daly's rotation, was a significant factor in Games 4, 5 and 6 of the Chicago series. But don't reflexively give Detroit's depth chart the edge. Now that Woolridge has come around for L.A.—particularly on defense, where he has finally taken to heart Riley's exhortations to contest shots more actively—the Laker reserves, who also include Cooper and Thompson, are potentially as strong as Detroit's. "Sometimes I think they might have the edge," says Suhr, "because it is a genuinely difficult thing to find minutes for nine players, especially when two of the bench guys [Vinnie Johnson and Edwards] are real scorers."
It's entirely possible that the series will be decided by these reserves, with two in particular—Woolridge and Detroit's Dennis Rodman—most likely to have the greatest impact. Woolridge is a 6'9" forward of both strength and finesse, though one who has been accused, in the past, of failing in clutch situations. Rodman, by contrast, is a gangly 6'8" collection of arms, legs and ears, a leaper who lacks a shooting touch and ball-handling skills, yet who compensates by diving for loose balls, crashing the boards and relentlessly shadowing anything that dribbles.
Woolridge and Rodman are, in a sense, symbols of their teams. Look at them. Study them. What do they tell you? Will it be the Lakers in a graceful and classy three-peat? Or will it be the Bad Boys in a knock-down-and-drag-out war of attrition? The vote from here, as it was in the preseason, is Detroit. But it's an awfully close call.