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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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Somewhere on their way to becoming a classic summer sequel, the NBA Finals seemed to go desperately wrong last week. What had been expected to be a confrontation between the two best teams playing at the top of their games turned into a rout. For the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers, who lost their starting backcourt to hamstring injuries within a four-day period, the bizarre turn of events may have been best summarized by a headline in the Los Angeles Times that read more like a supermarket tabloid: ELECTRICAL JOLT HELPS (AND HURTS) SCOTT: 'I SCREAM OUT LOUD.'

The Scott in question was Byron, the Lakers' third-leading scorer during the regular season, who suffered a partly torn left hamstring in practice the day before the championship series began and did not play a minute in the first three games. Then, in the third quarter of Game 2, Magic Johnson strained his left hamstring; he was able to make only a token appearance in Game 3 on Sunday. Both wounded Lakers were treated with a device that fired electricity into their legs to stimulate the injured areas. Forward Dennis Rodman of the Detroit Pistons received the same treatment for back spasms, and with all the electrotherapy going on, the Finals began to look a lot like a remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with Jack Nicholson in a cameo role this time.

In a week filled with shocks—not all of them electrical—surely the biggest of all was that the Lakers were going into Tuesday's Game 4 on the verge of being swept before their home fans. "Right now," Magic said Sunday, after Detroit won 114-110 to go up 3-0 in the series, "my heart feels worse than my hamstring."

With Johnson able to play for only 4:46 in that game, what had been the preeminent running team of the decade was slowed almost to a crawl. The decision to bring Johnson to the bench required little thought. "He just couldn't do anything," Laker coach Pat Riley said.

Even before Magic and his hamstring limped off into the sunset, the Lakers were repeatedly caught flat-footed as Detroit's guards went rocketing past them for open jumpers or layups. The collision defenses usually employed in a championship series are supposed to make the lane a forbidding place for little men, but 6'1" point guard Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, who is 6'3", spent so much time motoring up the middle of the Lakers' defense that they looked like commuters headed home from the Ford plant near the Southfield Freeway. "Last year, one of the biggest advantages we had was the quickness of our guards," Thomas said, "and we never exploited it. Riley did an excellent job then of neutralizing our quickness with the big lineup they used. This year we're making a conscious effort in every game to use our quickness."

The Lakers simply had no one quick enough to stay with Thomas and Dumars, and no one strong enough to repel the relentless advance of Vinnie Johnson, the third man in the Pistons' back-court rotation. Several Detroit players said they were startled when they realized the Lakers weren't going to switch aggressively while running through Detroit's labyrinth of screens, a tactic Chicago had used successfully against the Piston guards in the Eastern Conference finals. "You'd come off a screen and be open," Vinnie Johnson said of the Laker defense, "so you'd go, 'Oh,' and just take it in for a layup."

Against the more physical Bulls, Detroit's backcourt had shot a combined 39%, but against Los Angeles that number increased to 57%. Dumars was so hot in the second half on Sunday that Thomas actually pulled up on a fast break one time and tossed the ball back out to Dumars, who blazed away from 20 feet for two of his game-high 31 points.

Dumars has always been a capable scorer but is best known for his defensive work. He and Rodman made the NBA's All-Defensive team this year, and Dumars was expected to have his hands so full guarding Magic Johnson that scoring would be only an afterthought. So Dumars merely afterthought his way to 29 points a game against the Lakers, while shooting 62%. In Game 2 he poured in 26 points in the first half, then in Game 3 topped that with 21 points in the third quarter.

With a lineup that frequently included four players who stood 6'9" or taller, the Lakers had grown accustomed to overpowering their opponents. But after the dismal results of the first two games in Detroit, Riley started encouraging his players to think small. "We like overall size, but we've been playing 6'9" guys against 6'2" guys—the prototype quick guards who can do it all—and with our size, it's physiologically impossible to keep up with that quickness," Riley said. "They've completely broken down our defense. I never saw three guards drool like their guards drooled the other night. Their eyes are lighting up every time they get the ball."

In some cases, their eyes were lighting up even before they got the ball. Way before. Vinnie Johnson, who is known as the Microwave for his ability to generate quick offensive heat, revealed that his fuel included pregame megadoses of ginseng—the extract of an herb grown primarily in the Far East. To give himself a lift, Johnson even sips the stuff from a vial during timeouts and stretches on the bench. "During the course of the game, you find you're not breathing as hard as the other guys," Johnson said of the ginseng's restorative powers. "You feel fresh, like you can play for another 40 minutes." The league's response to the ginseng situation was muted, but if this catches on, it's not hard to envision a future in which ginseng rehab centers dot the land.

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