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COMMENTARY : Pistons Win Title With Huge Asterisk Attached

June 18, 1989|MIKE LITTWIN | The Baltimore Sun

Get out the asterisk, and make it the giant size. Now, attach it to Detroit's sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Roger Maris is off the hook, if you know what I mean. The Pistons are officially champions of the National Basketball Association, but they had to struggle mightily to beat a crippled Lakers team that would be fortunate to compete with the Washington Bullets.

Because the Lakers weren't making any excuses Tuesday night, I'll make them for them.

You had only to look at the bench. See Magic Johnson in sweats and a Lakers T-shirt. See Byron Scott in a suit. See the Lakers all dressed up with nowhere to go, and yet, for the three consecutive games, they played the Pistons into the final minute.

A healthy Lakers team probably wins another NBA championship. Find two working hamstrings and marry them to Johnson and Scott, and the king, now officially dead, might be breathing yet.

The bad boys were bad. I don't mean rough (though Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn did their part). I mean bad. I mean that Isiah Thomas was hardly a factor and that Mark Aguirre might as well have been on the end of leash.

The white-hot intensity that had marked their defense all year rarely surfaced. What we did see, however, was inspiring play from Joe Dumars and the expected unconscious offense from Vinnie Johnson and more inspiration from Dennis Rodman and important points from Mahorn and James Edwards.

Already deeper than the opposition, the Pistons, in the end, swamped the Lakers, who once had a 16-point lead but would need important minutes from the likes of Jeff Lamp and David Rivers.

And so, a sweep. And with it, the end of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who looked as if the time machine he discovered in Game 3 had suddenly lurched wildly into the future.

He went out with seven points and three rebounds and the roar of the Lakers' crowd. His teammates gave him an ovation, and so did the Pistons. The 24 points and 13 rebounds he managed on Sunday would have been the way to go out, but you don't get to pick your endings in real life.

It was an uncharacteristic finish for Abdul-Jabbar, who has helped define basketball for a generation and more. With three NCAA championships and six more in 20 NBA seasons, Abdul-Jabbar has suffered few such defeats in his career. The wounded Lakers looked to him one last time, but Abdul-Jabbar, human after all, is 42, without hair and now, finally, retired. It was time to take the sky hook and go home.

Instead, the Lakers found James Worthy, last year's MVP in this series, who scored a career-high 40 points. He wasn't enough.

It was the Pistons who fell last year in seven games in a series they might have won and who came back to put together the best record in the regular season.

Before the playoffs, they were the best team. Once the playoffs began, the Lakers became the Lakers again, unbeaten through 11 games and dominant as of old.

It looked like a great matchup until Scott was lost before Game 1 and Johnson during Game 2. The series was over when Johnson, who tried to play in Game 3, couldn't. The Lakers could have played out the string, but they didn't. Maybe that's how you win five championships in a decade.

As the game began, it was suggested that, with Magic on the bench, Isiah Thomas might kiss Tony Campbell at the tap. In fact, of those three great friends -- Thomas, Johnson and Aguirre -- Johnson made by far the greatest contribution. He provided inspiration; he provided a lift. You knew where he was -- on the bench, rooting his giant heart out.

For much of the game, you couldn't find his two buddies. Aguirre, of course, has made a career of losing big games, dating back to all those early-round losses playing with DePaul. A controversial midseason trade, some say engineered by Thomas, sent Adrian Dantley in exchange for Aguirre, who will, as a result, win his first ring -- if he has the guts to wear it.

A career 25-points-a-game scorer, Aguirre scored 28 points in the first three games of this series. Those, of course, were the good old days. With the Pistons struggling Tuesday night, Aguirre scored two points.

But it's his little friend, Isiah, the transcendent talent, who truly disappoints. He scored 14 points. But it was Dumars, again, who stepped up when the game counted. Thomas cried at the end, and he's a great player, but when you see him on the floor with Magic Johnson, you understand where greatness resides.

As the Lakers decade ends, it won't be with a "three-peat." It will be with the Pistons, one of only five teams to play in the finals in the 1980s. The Pistons are a fine team. The Lakers might have been better, though. It's something, of course, that we'll never know.

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