Last Saturday morning, 12 hours after the Detroit Pistons had beaten the brutish Philadelphia 76ers 115-112 in overtime at The Palace in Auburn Hills, the ever-smiling Isiah Thomas limped into a suburban Detroit restaurant for breakfast. The Pistons' point guard had been up much of the night packing his badly sprained ankle in ice. He had twisted it for about the thousandth time in his career on a fearless drive into the tall timber, drawing a foul and pushing his team on by example. Last season's world champions finished the week with a 44-15 record and were far atop the Eastern Conference standings, due in large part to Thomas's passionate play.
While waiting for his food, the relatively diminutive Thomas (5'11" and change, no more than 175 pounds by playoff time) took the mustard bottle and placed it at one end of the table. Then he slowly moved his water glass toward it. "This is the NBA championship," he said of the mustard. "This is our team," he said of the glass. He bumped a teacup with the glass. "The teacup is not a distraction. When you're focused on this [the mustard], nothing's going to get in your way."
Then he sighed. The mustard has pretty much been beaten out of Thomas's game in recent years. His left thumb has been fused straight. His knees ache. There are scars lacing his eyebrows. Nine stitches came on two occasions, courtesy of the elbows of the Chicago Bulls' 7'1", 245-pound Bill Cartwright. The last time Big Bill got him, Thomas went after him with fists flying. It looked like a weasel attacking a bear. "I regret doing that," said Thomas, "but when you're playing with intensity, sometimes you can't help it."
And intensity is the watchword of this Detroit team. Behind a chain-saw defense that had allowed opponents a league-low 97.8 points per game through Sunday, the Pistons had reeled off 31 wins in 36 games after starting the season 13-10. "This season mirrors last season," says center Bill Laimbeer. "At the beginning, everybody was playing out of their minds to beat us, because of who we are. But now the dog days have set in, those teams have slacked off, and we're doing the same things we always do. Our system is working."
And what a system it is. "A lot of teams look at their rosters and say, 'We're as good as Detroit,' " says coach Chuck Daly. "But we're mature, we have a work ethic, great leadership, and the team polices itself internally. Plus, I think the guys like each other."
Still, no Piston is averaging 20 points a game. Journeyman power forward James Edwards is 34; Laimbeer, the league's most reviled player, rises barely to tippy-toe on his jumper; shooting guard Joe Dumars, who is listed at 6'3", is really closer to 6'1"; and hyperactive forward Dennis (Worm) Rodman is so clearly unfamiliar with such basketball basics as the 10-foot jump shot that he qualifies as Detroit's visitor from another planet. But when all five Pistons are pumping, they are a sight to behold. Offensively they go to whoever is hot, whether it's Edwards in the paint, Dumars in the corner, Laimbeer from way out, Isiah from anywhere, or either of those two scoring machines, Vinnie Johnson or Mark Aguirre, off the bench. And defensively, they are like a five-headed monster, led by the quivering Worm.
"We hang our hat on defense," says Daly. "It's the simplest equation, since you're not going to shoot well every night. You don't have to be 'on' to play defense."
Daly will start to outline the basics of the Detroit defensive scheme—positioning off the ball, reacting to rotation, boxing out, rebounding, preventing second shots—and it all sounds routine. But the Pistons spend much of their practice time working on the subtleties of team defense, sometimes without even a ball present. They know how to play the edges, how to give themselves up individually for the betterment of the team. Before each game, Daly hands out detailed written responses to every play an opposing team runs. "Our defense has to do with the way we run our offense, too," he says. "You can't just give up the ball. We could get into a very long conversation about it."
Or we could just watch Rodman as he plants his legs far apart, spreads his arms, stares into the soul of his man and envelops him. "He is a unique player," understates Daly of Rodman, a 6'8" first-time All-Star who was 5'9" as a high school senior and worked as a janitor before playing hoops at that noted basketball power, Southeastern Oklahoma State. "He is nonoffensive," says Daly. "How many points does he average? Who cares [8.7 for those who do]? He scores by happenstance. But I don't know if there's ever been an athlete who plays with his enthusiasm for other things."
Those other things include rebounding, with an emphasis on the offensive boards (4.0 per game), running the floor on the break and eating up the other team's toughest scorer. "Before, I played at defense," says the notoriously offensive-minded Aguirre, who came to Detroit in a trade for Adrian Dantley on Feb. 15, 1989. "Now I get mad when my man scores—because I'll have come in for Rodman, and he'll have held the guy scoreless."