Marvelous. If they were all like this, the parade would already have started. Here were the Pistons Tuesday night, with all the cobwebs cleared, with full concentration, jaws clenched, eyes narrowed, attacking the National Basketball Association Finals as if they’d been waiting all month, all year, all their lives. Which, come to think of it, they had.
“Too easy,” they seemed to say as they walked off the court, following a 109-97 cruise over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1. “It’ll get harder. And we’ll be ready. What do you think we are, green?”
Not anymore. The war for the crown is officially under way, the first shots have been fired, and they went off Piston fingers and fell deliciously through the net. There was no stage fright here, no awe, no wide-eyed stares from the Detroit end. The Pistons were playing in their own arena, their own game, their own way.
“Too easy,” they seemed to shrug, despite the win, despite holding the opponent yet again to fewer than 100 points. “Don’t be fooled. This is just the first. You need four, remember?”
Sure we do. And that type of attitude may prove to be the Pistons’ biggest advantage this time around. Stay even. Stay calm. Just the same, three more of these would be pretty sweet. Chicago? Forget Chicago. There was no clank and creak of the Chicago series Tuesday night. The Pistons began the game as if coming out of a car wash, sparkling new and fresh. Whatever bad shooting habits they had developed in the prelims seemed gone now. Isiah Thomas — who played brilliantly — was popping at will, from the foul line, from the top of the key. Joe Dumars was pulling up and kissing the nets. Mark Aguirre was close range, on the money.
Good shots? They were taking good shots, from the paint, not the perimeter. Good shots. Good follow-ups. Good defense. And the foul calls? My goodness. In the first half, they were all going Detroit’s way. What was the count midway through the second quarter: Lakers 12 fouls, Pistons three? When was the last time that happened? The Pistons handed the Lakers their first loss in the 1989 playoffs as if it was owed to them with interest.
The game began with a Thomas jump shot. It ended with Fennis Dembo running the ball upcourt. Fennis? Did we say Fennis? So one-sided was the second half, that by the fourth quarter, most of the attention was on a woman in a red dress that was cut just a shade lower than James Worthy’s shooting percentage.
Which Tuesday, believe it or not, was pretty low: 6-for-18.
O.K. Here is some advice. Take this game, savor it and forget about it. Let’s be honest: This was hardly vintage Lakers: Without Byron Scott, who has
an injured hamstring, the Lakers seemed lost. Michael Cooper and Tony Campbell do not an outside shooting team make. Take that, the foul trouble that plagued the whole team and the long layoff since their last series (eight
days off) and LA has enough excuses to talk its way out of prison.
As if the Pistons care. That’s one in their pocket. Credit the bench — particularly James Edwards, who easily outshone his onetime teammate and mentor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And credit the defense, which was over the Lakers like a blanket, wet and smelly and all over. Credit Thomas (24 points), who stuck the knife in early, and Dumars (22 points), who stuck it in late, hitting jumper after jumper in the fourth quarter, to keep the lid on any famous LA comeback. Magic Johnson was human. A.C. Green was invisible. Abdul-Jabbar was old. The Lakers were done for the night.
Yes, here was a game that had all the ceremony of the finals: the “Beat LA” cheer. The Rocky music. The pre-game kiss between Isiah and Magic (and Aguirre, he got a kiss in there, too, on Magic, so we had two kisses, three players. This thing may be getting a little out of hand).
But it was not a repeat of last year’s series opener (which the Pistons also won). Not at all. Oh, sure, the faces were familiar: the slicked-back macho of Lakers coach Pat Riley, the towering grace of Abdul-Jabbar, the steady, deadly workmanship of bearded Worthy (who always looks as if he could dunk the ball, then smoke a pipe). Magic was without the traditional goatee, but the smile was the same, and so was the game.
But last year the Pistons were simply thrilled to be there. “You know what I like about it this year?” Dumars said in the locker room before the game, as the minutes until tip-off ticked down. “These are the two best teams in the NBA. And that’s the way it should be. We’re not nervous now. It’s just basketball, let the best team win.”
Indeed, if the Pistons were in any way worried about this series, they didn’t show it in the pregame moments. Rick Mahorn sat by his locker in blue jeans, his feet up on the wall, flipping through pictures of himself and Dembo and laughing with visitors. Dumars read his book, as usual, something about a murder mystery. Michael Williams bopped his head to the sounds of a Discman. Vinnie Johnson sipped a Diet Coke and laughed about how different this was from last year’s opener.
“Remember, man? Nobody expected us to win a game. We were just ticked off, and I think that’s why we played so well. We felt like it was a seventh game right there — and we came out and beat them. Then in the second game, I think we relaxed a little. And from that point on, we had to talk ourselves into a seventh-game atmosphere.”
Not this time. Too easy? Perhaps. But the mark of maturity is knowing when to celebrate and when to just keep on with your business. So it was that when the final buzzer sounded, the crowd was on its feet, roaring, but the Pistons simply marched off, headed for the showers, more work to be done.
“We’ll be back on Thursday,” they seemed to say. “Let’s just see what happens.”
Anyone for two-riffic?
Gayle Weast, left, and Cynthia Crews, both of Plymouth, get in some pregame celebration at the Palace on Tuesday night.