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PUSHED TO THE BRINK
Bruce Newman
June 19, 1989
The Pistons took a 3-0 lead over the badly hamstrung Lakers in the NBA Finals
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June 19, 1989

Pushed To The Brink

The Pistons took a 3-0 lead over the badly hamstrung Lakers in the NBA Finals

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Each game in this series was preceded by an exchange of kisses between Magic and his friend Isiah—a ritualized display of pregame comity now expanded to include the pouting lips of their pal Mark Aguirre. Aguirre, a small forward, came to the Pistons in a controversial midseason trade involving Adrian Dantley, who was Detroit's leading scorer in the Finals a year ago. Dantley has suggested that he was shipped off to Dallas because he would not kiss Thomas on any part of his anatomy, and while Aguirre gave exceptionally good pregame smooches, he was rarely a factor in the series. "What I brought to the Pistons is more of a flow," he explained enigmatically. By week's end, however, his production seemed to have flowed south; he was 0 for 6 in Sunday's outing.

Once the kissing was over, the Lakers were prepared to bump with the Bad Boys, but it never really came to that. L.A. forward James Worthy came into the series shooting 60.3% for the playoffs, but without Scott's long jumpers to stretch the defense, Worthy was unable to shake the leaning presence of forward Rick Mahorn. Worthy missed six of the nine shots he took in the first quarter of Game 1, a start from which neither he nor the Lakers ever recovered. It didn't help that A.C. Green, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Orlando Woolridge and Michael Cooper each picked up two fouls in the first quarter, or that the Lakers had only one offensive rebound during the second and third periods. Nor did it help the Lakers' cause that they could score but 11 points through the first 10:51 of the third quarter as Detroit opened up a lead it never lost in a 109-97 victory.

Cooper had started in Scott's place, and when he went to the bench, Riley was forced to play ninth man Tony Campbell for 25 minutes. That caused such confusion that even Magic seemed rattled. He took only 12 shots and turned the ball over five times, once launching a pass into the stands when Campbell cut the wrong way. It could not have been a comforting sight for any Laker partisan to see the two-time defending world champions walking off the floor at the end of the first quarter explaining the plays to each other.

Even on those rare occasions when the Pistons allow their testosterone levels to drop within normal range, their defense remains constant. Through 14 playoff games they did not allow an opposing team to score 100 points. The Lakers finally broke through in a 108-105 loss in Game 2. "Everybody's responsible for his own man in our defense, and everybody's very conscious of that," said Detroit forward John Salley, who blocked eight shots in the first two games. "No traps, no zones, no excuses. Make a mistake, you mess up our defense."

The only time that happened last week was moments after Magic pulled up lame and then disappeared into the locker room for good late in the third quarter of Game 2. The Lakers ran off 14 points in little more than three minutes, opening an eight-point lead before the Pistons could gather themselves. But that was the end of it. Los Angeles then went nearly 9� minutes without a basket, while Thomas—with his own tender right hamstring heavily bandaged and a gash over his left eye sending blood streaming down his face and neck—drove the Pistons' offense. L.A. still had a chance to tie the game with two seconds left, but Worthy missed the first of two free throws, and that was that.

After the game, Magic stood in the middle of a bathroom while his thigh was carefully wrapped—a tableau rich in symbolism, for with each layer of tape the Lakers' chances were buried a bit deeper. Johnson and Scott represented 42 points and 16 assists gone from the Lakers' offense, but emotionally, the loss of Johnson was incalculable. Thomas, who had played on a badly sprained ankle in Games 6 and 7 a year ago, knew what Magic was going through. "I just sat all alone in my hotel room last year and cried," he said. But when Thomas was asked if the absence of Scott and Johnson tainted what the Pistons were on the verge of winning, he stiffened. "If we beat the Little Rascals, it would be sweet," he said.

Confronted with the likelihood that Magic wouldn't play in Game 3, Riley could only cling to the dim hope that Abdul-Jabbar, playing in the final series of his remarkable career, could summon up a single great game from memory. "We have to go to him," Riley said. "The shots have to come from somewhere. Why not from him? We're hoping for one last hurrah from Kareem." It had been a difficult spring for Abdul-Jabbar, whose every move seemed creaky and painfully slow. He was frequently asked embarrassing questions about whether he was retiring a year too late. "I don't have any regrets," he said. "But some people might have second thoughts. It's understandable."

On Sunday he struck a final grace note, scoring 24 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. But it wasn't enough. Thomas added 26 to Dumars's 31. Rodman played as if he had been shot out of a gun, grabbing 19 rebounds. The Pistons were one game away from their first world championship, and it appeared that the Lakers were expecting no miracles. "I cried enough the last couple of days," Magic said. "I'm through with that. Reality has set in."

It was about to set in for the Pistons, too. "We understand the chess game that we're playing," Thomas said. "We've captured two bishops and a queen, but it's still not checkmate."

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