ONE FROM THE CROWNTHE LITTLE GUYS CUT THE LAKERS DOWN TO SIZE

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — They needed a hero. They needed someone to combat the Hollywood ending that was about to unfold. The Pistons were winning, the Lakers were dying — but suddenly the Lakers were rising again, feeble bones, pulled hamstrings, the ghosts of champions past, howling and clanging chains.

It was the end of every horror movie ever made, and LA was suddenly within three points with nine seconds to go. The ball came in to David Rivers in the corner and Joe Dumars, uncharacteristically, was out of position. No time to think. No time to plan. He charged, flying like destiny — never mind that he had just come off the bench, and had been sitting for nine minutes — and wrapped himself on that ball in mid-air, smothered it, blocked it, then saved it to Bill Laimbeer. Remember that moment, folks. He may just have secured the first Pistons championship in history.

Three down.

Killer Joe.

“When was the last time you blocked a shot?” someone asked Dumars in the joyous Pistons locker room, after Detroit outlasted an injured LA team, 114-110, to take a commanding 3-0 lead in these NBA Finals.

“God, I don’t even remember!” Dumars said. “I couldn’t even tell you. College maybe?”

College? A blocked shot? Joe Dumars? Why not? Anything it takes. Anything they need. In many ways, that final play was typical of all that had come before it, the Pistons’ smallest men coming from nowhere to snare the victories, to take this big man’s game and put it in the low pockets. Here was Vinnie Johnson, defenders in his face, on his neck, in his shorts, knocking down five straight baskets to bring the Pistons back in that fourth quarter. Here was Isiah Thomas, stealing the ball, poking away passes, driving the lane, one-handed, for a crucial lay-up in the final minute.

And here, finally was Dumars, quiet Joe — who, right now, is so clearly the MVP of this series that they needn’t bother to vote — not only making that final steal, but before that, lighting up the nets like he used to in the hot, sweaty Louisiana gymnasiums of his youth. Hitting from long range, short range, bank shots, lay-ups, kiss glass, kiss nets, kiss ’em good-bye.

“It was just like back in high school,” he said of his 21-point third quarter (17 straight) and 31 points overall. “It felt like every shot was going to fall.”

He allowed a smile.

“And most of them did.”

Three down.

What a game. What a drain. This was less a basketball court than some battlefield in a World War II photograph. There was Magic Johnson on the Lakers bench, wounded, wrapped in bandages, able to give just five minutes before taking a seat, and Dennis Rodman on the other bench, his shirt yanked up, a trainer working on his throbbing back muscles. Out on the court, Isiah had his thigh wrapped, a bandage over his left eye. Rick Mahorn and Michael Cooper were tangled up, muscle on muscle, pushing each other, cursing, fighting. A.C. Green hooked up Thomas, pushed Rodman, James Worthy threw two elbows in Mahorn’s chest. Pretty? Forget pretty. Even the usual “Let’s Dance” Forum crowd was down and dirty Sunday, yelling “Detroit Sucks!” and booing unmercifully.

No wonder. Their team was hurt. Their team was on the brink of disaster. These Lakers — trailing and injured — were laid- back no longer, they were mean, they were pushing and shoving, diving for balls and cramming for lane space. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ripped a rebound from Isiah Thomas as if taking some flesh with it, Worthy juked and bumped and forced his way inside for a lay-up, contact and all. They are, after all, the defending world champions, and they played like a proud whale hopelessly speared by the enemy: They thrashed, splashed, twisted with frustration.

“We knew they would never lay down and die in this game,” said Thomas.
“They had the home court, the incentive, they were going to be on fire. We just wanted to weather the storm and win the game.”

Eventually they did both, thanks once again, to the guards, who have put on a show worthy of any movie award they give out in this high-gloss city. They scored 74 of their teams 114 points, played stick-’em-up defense, and, most importantly, kept their cool in the killer moments. “We don’t panic anymore,” said Johnson.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the mark of a team that is ready to take the throne — not last year’s, not the year’s before, it has taken this long for the Pistons to come into an emotional snake pit like the Forum on Sunday, take the hardest stones these devils can throw, and still wrestle away a victory.

What proof? Here is your proof: Up 113-108 with 28 seconds to go, the Pistons seemed assured of the victory. The crowd began to file out. And then the game began to unravel. A jump ball resulted in a Thomas foul on Rivers, which sank coach Chuck Daly in his chair, head in his hands. Rivers sank the free throws: 113-110 with 13 seconds to go. OK. All the Pistons needed do was hang onto the ball, right? But an inbounds pass from John Salley to Dumars resulted in another jump ball — the refs suddenly forgot how to call a foul
— and although Dumars won the tap, the ball rolled away out of bounds. The Lakers had it. A three-point basket could tie.

“I said to myself, ‘Whoa,’ ” said Salley afterward. “We’ve seen this before.”

Indeed. Remember Bird stole the ball? Remember Game 6 here last year, the so-called last-second foul on Laimbeer? Remember all that? The Pistons do. They did not panic. They did not shake. “Every freaky thing that can happen to a basketball team has happened to us,” said Thomas, shaking his head.
“There’s nothing left to fear.”

So it was that Dumars came flying through the air, only missing the cape and the boots, and blocked that Rivers’ shot, saved it to Laimbeer, who said to himself: “Don’t drop it! Just hang on, Bill. Let them foul you if they want.” Maybe last year, that shot would have gone. Maybe last year, Laimbeer would have missed both free throws. But this is not last year. Ask the players. Ask the coaches.

“Actually, the way things were going,” said a weary Daly, “I thought Joe would save the ball, throw it back, and it would go in their basket for two points.”

OK. Don’t ask the coaches.

They’ll be convinced soon enough. Three up? Can the Pistons really be one win away from the crown? Sure, they have been in that position before. But last year, there were only two games left. This year they have four games to get one victory, and two of those are at the Palace. If the Pistons can’t do that, they don’t deserve to be in the NBA Finals.

OK. A moment here about the injuries to Los Angeles. Yes, it is a shame that Johnson barely played because of his strained hamstring. You want to face an opponent at full strength, and Johnson is perhaps the best player in the game. And yes, it is a shame that Byron Scott (torn hamstring) still hasn’t played in this series, and may not. And yes, it is tough for LA to have to use Rivers and Tony Campbell in the NBA Finals.

So what? That shouldn’t cheapen the accomplishment. You play with what you got. Rodman could barely walk out there Sunday. Mahorn couldn’t stand up last year, and Thomas couldn’t put any weight on his ankle in Game 7. Was there any asterisk next to the Lakers’ crown for 1988? What we saw Sunday was enormous character by this Lakers team, pressure shooting by Worthy (26 points), Campbell (11 points) and a stellar performance by the retiring Abdul-Jabbar (24 points, 13 rebounds). Their players showed class, guts, desire — and that is just as much a part of the Lakers as Magic Johnson.

Give them credit for that. And give the Pistons credit for what they are doing, chopping down the legendary Lakers with their smallest men. Isiah. VJ. Killer Joe. Is there any stopping these guys?

“JOE! HEY, JOE! YO, JOE!” fans screamed as Dumars made his way through the basement hallways of the Forum. He waved shyly.

“You’re gonna lose your anonymity,” someone said to Dumars.

“I don’t even know what that means,” he said.

Never mind. They’ll all be famous real soon. Three down. One to go.

Can you wait? CUTLINE: The Detroit Pistons’ Dennis Rodman stuffs the ball over the Los Angeles Lakers’ Mychal Thompson.

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