Marvelous. If they were all like this, the parade already would have started. Here were the Pistons Tuesday night, with all the cobwebs cleared, with full concentration, jaws clenched, shooting 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.
“You’ve just seen us play our best game of the playoffs,” coach Chuck Daly said after Detroit cruised to a 109-97 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1. The Chicago series? Forget the Chicago series. The Pistons began the game as if coming out of a car wash, sparkling new and fresh. Whatever bad shooting habits they had developed 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 his shots were kissing the nets, and Vinnie Johnson was leaning and bumping and turning easy shots into hard shots, which, of course, are his favorite kind. The return of the old guard. Just in time.
“I wish I could explain why suddenly everybody starts clicking,” said Dumars, who combined with Thomas and Johnson for 65 points. “Maybe it’s the new series, maybe it’s a new opponent. You get tired of seeing those Chicago guys after a while. Who knows?”
Who cares? Talk about good timing. Good shots? The Pistons were taking good shots, from the paint, not the perimeter. Good defense? They were playing great defense — holding Magic Johnson to one basket in the second half. And the foul calls? My goodness. In the first half, they were all going Detroit’s way. When was the last time that happened? The Pistons handed the Lakers their first loss in the 1989 playoffs as if they were serving a summons.
Listen to this: The game began with a Thomas jump shot. It ended with Fennis Dembo running 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. Six-for- 18?
It’s like we’ve been waiting to get to this game since last year at this time,” Thomas said afterward. “When we began training camp this season, it was like we didn’t even want to play the regular season, we just wanted to go back and pick up in the Lakers series and get another chance at them. Even when we were playing Chicago, we were thinking about LA. This game. Now it’s here and we won it.”
Great. Now here is some advice. Take this game and forget about it. Let’s be honest: This was hardly vintage Lakers: Without Byron Scott, who has an injured hamstring, LA 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 layoff since the Lakers’ last series (eight days), and LA has enough excuses to talk its way out of prison.
The Pistons knew it. Despite a roaring crowd — and the woman in the red dress — there was no undue celebration from the Detroit crew, no foolishly thrown high-fives, no nervous laughter or dazzled eyes. Nobody was ordering champagne.
“You hear all the time about experience,” said Dumars, looking around the subdued locker room after the game. “You’re seeing experience right here. We’ve been there. We know now that high-fives don’t get it done for you. There’s more games to be played. We’ll play ’em.”
That may be the best thing to come out of Tuesday night. Winning is attitude, the proper approach, and by all indications the Pistons are no longer green in those departments. They are roasted and ready.
“We also played a pretty good game,” reminded John Salley.
Well, yeah. That, too.
That’s one in their pocket. Credit the bench — particularly James Edwards, who easily outshone his one-time teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And credit the defense, which was over the Lakers like a blanket, wet and smelly. 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, keeping the lid on any LA comeback. Magic Johnson was human. A.C. Green was invisible. Abdul-Jabbar was old. The Lakers were done for the night.
One-derful. Good to be back near the end of the rainbow. Here was a game that had all the ceremony of the finals: the “Beat LA” cheer. The Rocky music. The pregame kiss between Isiah and Magic (and Mark Aguirre, who got a kiss in there, too, on Magic, so we had two kisses, three players. This thing may be getting out of hand).
And here, for the scrapbook, are the memories that linger: Thomas threading passes through traffic, finding Vinnie Johnson for a lay-up, finding Bill Laimbeer for a lay-up; Salley rising like a crane and slam-blocking a Mychal Thompson shot, take that; Dumars regaining his shooting touch in that fourth quarter as if he’d never missed in his life, dropping one jumper after another, as the arena announcer bellowed: “DUUUUUUUUMARS!”
And of course, the defense, shutting down Magic, shutting down Worthy, shutting down Kareem, drawing offensive fouls, dominating the rebounds.
“I expect a different Lakers team on Thursday,” Daly said.
“I expect a different Lakers team on Thursday,” Thomas said.
“I expect a different Lakers team on Thursday,” Dumars said.
OK. So now we know what to expect. 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?