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NBA FINALS: THE RIVALRY

They Share a History

Lakers and Pistons battled through two Finals in the late '80s, each winning one

June 06, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Their 1988 Finals loss "was a huge factor," Thomas said. "We believed in '88 we were the better team, and we lost that series. Statistically, we outperformed the Lakers in every category, except we lost and they won.

"When we went into '89, we felt we were the better team again, and we were primed to play them again."

To get to the 1989 Finals, the Pistons had swept the Celtics in a best-of-five series, swept Milwaukee in four and stymied the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in six games.

"They weren't as 'bad boy' as their image portrayed, you know," said current Laker assistant coach Kurt Rambis, who was part of the 1988 Laker Finals team but had signed as a free agent with the expansion Charlotte Hornets in the summer of 1988. "They had Rick Mahorn, a quote-unquote enforcer, but he wasn't a bad guy. Bill Laimbeer picked on guards, and everybody else just worked hard."

The Lakers, perhaps inspired by knowing those playoffs would be the last for Abdul-Jabbar before he retired, won 11 consecutive games, then a playoff record, against Portland, Seattle and Phoenix to reach the 1989 Finals. But the catch to their efficiency was that they had more than a week between their West-clinching victory over the Suns and the start of the championship series.

Riley took the team to Santa Barbara for a minicamp, which seemed reasonable at the time. But his decision was second-guessed when Byron Scott tore a hamstring on the eve of Game 1 of the Finals and Johnson severely pulled a hamstring during Game 2, with the score tied at 75. Had Riley overworked a team that was, after all, getting older?

"I remember Magic coming to me and saying, 'We've got to get out of town,' " Riley said. "I was always accused of pushing the guys too hard, but it really wasn't a training camp. We practiced half a day, had team dinners.... There was so much time off. I don't know, maybe we ran a little too much."

Without Scott, they were handicapped. Without Johnson, they had no ball movement, no life, no "Show" in their "Showtime." They lost Game 1 by 12 points, Game 2 by three points and Game 3 by four points, and the Pistons finished them off in Game 4, at the Forum in Inglewood, 105-97. Detroit won again in 1990, but the string was ended by the Bulls in 1991.

If Scott and Johnson hadn't been hurt, might the 1989 outcome have been different?

"They still would have lost," Thomas said. "Had I not gotten hurt the year before, they would have lost. I think anybody can look back at the series in '88 and definitely see that my injury affected the series....

"We never said we were hurt. The Lakers were the winners and that was that. But in '89, when they were hurt, we made them pay for being hurt. And if they would have made it back the next year, we still would have beaten them, but they weren't good enough to get there."

"No way," Riley said. "They would not have had an answer for Magic. It's just the way I feel about it. We'll never know. They got their win. Injuries play a big part in these things, and luck plays a part too."

Riley remembers those teams and that era fondly. He said he expected to return to Los Angeles someday with his wife, Chris, "and buy our $85,000 courtside seats."

He added, "If you can keep a dynasty, a legitimate championship team, together as long as we kept that team together, that's pretty good. We had the same players, the same coach for nine years, or at least that was my tenure. They went to the Finals once after I left, so they kept that team together 10 years.

"It didn't come apart. It's just that people grew old.

"You can't replace greatness with good players. Kareem retired, Magic and Worthy were a little older and other teams got stronger. Before you know it, you're not as good. And then it was Michael Jordan's time.

"You get a run of nine or 10 years, you feel absolutely blessed. A roll for 20 years, no team has done that. We went as far as you can take it, and the teams we were always better than, teams like Detroit that had a window to succeed, they succeeded.

"We had a good run at it. When I left I said, 'I don't think you're ever going to see anything like this again.' "

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Times staff writers Mike Terry and Thomas Bonk contributed to this report.

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