Thursday, June 03, 2004

Pistons vs. Lakers in NBA Finals: Back to '88 & '89

I love it when history repeats itself. My beloved Detroit Pistons, led by two-time defensive player of the year Ben Wallace (of the big "fro"), super-consistent scorer Rip Hamilton (a sort of Reggie Miller clone), and Rasheed Wallace, will be going up against the Lakers, with their four future Hall of Famers (Shaq, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton). Both teams reached the Finals by a very similar path. Lower-level playoff teams were first faced (Houston and Milwaukee), then the defending Eastern and Western Conference champions were overcome (New Jersey and San Antonio -- the latter being the 2003 NBA champions). Lastly, both defeated the teams with the best records in East and West: Indiana and Minnesota.

The comparisons end there. The Pistons (following Larry Brown's coaching emphasis) are a defensive team (they allowed the fewest opponent points of any team, and set a record of holding adversaries under 70 five straight times, and allowed the lowest field goal percentage also). The Lakers specialize in offense. Kobe had the third highest point-per-game average this year and Karl Malone is second all-time in points scored, after Kareem Jabbar.

A Motown native and lifelong metro Detroit resident like me can't help but fondly recall the old days of the "Bad Boys" (Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman, Vinnie Johnson et al). There were basketball heroics in those days of almost mythic proportions. You always hear about Bird and Magic, from that era, and then Jordan in the early 90s (sort of the Holy Trinity of basketball from '80 to '95, with a nod also to Dr. J.). But what is less known is the fact that the Pistons -- led by Thomas: one of the 50 all-time greats of the NBA and arguably the best "little man" ever, and an extraordinary clutch shooter -- defeated all these teams, led by Bird, Magic, and Jordan, in or near their prime, and were the only team to do so. That was quite a feat! The road (like life itself) was rough and often heartbreaking, though.

In 1987 the Pistons were playing Bird's Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals (they were the NBA champions in 1984 and 1986). We were about to beat them on their own court, but Larry Bird stole a Thomas inbound pass and the Celtics scored and won. It's a famous replay that is often shown. They won the next game to take the series.

In 1988, the Pistons finally overcame the Celtics, who never returned to the Finals again. We were the last team in the Eastern Conference to beat them while Bird was still in his prime. We then had to find a way to defeat Magic's Lakers: one of the best teams of all time, with five championships (Magic Johnson came from Michigan State University, which had won the NCAA national championship, beating Bird's Indiana team). That series went seven games, but Isiah Thomas sprained his ankle in the fifth or sixth game, and couldn't play in the seventh. But for that, we very well could have won, and thus overcome the Lakers when they were in peak form -- something even Bird and the Celtics couldn't do the year before.

In 1989, we did win the Finals 4-0, but Magic Johnson sprained his ankle in the second game and couldn't play anymore. So that tainted the victory a bit (to put it mildly), but we had, after all, won the first game in LA before Magic got injured. Magic's Lakers never won another Final. They were defeated by the Chicago Bulls in the 1992 Finals.

Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest player of all time, with the highest points-per-game average. The Pistons were the last team to defeat the Bulls before they went on to win their six championships and were unbeatable. This was in the 1989 and 1990 playoffs (possibly we played them in 1988, too; I don't recall).

We won the championship the second year in a row in 1990, against Clyde Drexler's Portland Trailblazers.

So the "Bad Boy" Pistons of the late 80s and early 90s were victorious over all the best players and teams of that time. I think that is something to be very proud of. I doubt that many people give us much of a chance this year (and I have my own strong doubts, based on disturbingly uneven playoff performances), against the three-time NBA champs, but I wouldn't be too sure that it is a foregone conclusion. For one thing, defense often prevails over offense, in all sports. Bill Russell used to regularly outplay Wilt Chamberlain. Good pitching trumps good hitting in baseball, every time. If a good quarterback throws five interceptions because of skillful cornerbacks, his team will likely lose.

The Lakers' scorers won't do quite as well with defensive, shot-blocking dynamo Ben Wallace in their face, and tall, long Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince also in the paint and all over their opponents (and all three block shots: the Pistons had 19 of those in one of the playoff games). That changes things a lot. Malone and Payton are also old and might be worn down by our tenacious defense (even 24-year-old Ron Artest was fatigued in the last game he played against us, as announcer Doc Rivers stated). The brilliant, often Jordan-like Kobe Bryant is quite a streaky shooter. Strong defense will probably make him even more so.

We have good back-up big men who can foul Shaq (Mehmet Okur and Elden Campbell) and make him earn his points the hard way. We can beat these guys, but it will not be easy at all, needless to say. It will require our best game every night. And the Pistons, unfortunately, have not done that in many playoff games. They seem to play their best only if their backs are up against the wall.

We did it before, overcoming all odds; we can do it again. It's the "go to work / hard workin'" midwestern Pistons against the flashy, West Coast, running soap opera, "Payton Place" Lakers. This will be a fun series, whoever prevails. The last time my Pistons were in the Finals, I was just starting to seriously consider the Catholic faith, and didn't have any children yet (my first was born in 1991). The Tigers were last in the World Series (winning) in 1984, and we watched the games during our honeymoon in the Smokey Mountains. The Red Wings have won the Stanley Cup three times recently but I don't follow hockey.

Basketball is my favorite sport to watch, by far (baseball has always been my favorite to play), so I'm in seventh heaven. My second oldest son is almost 11 and a basketball nut (and can already outshoot me for short shots, though I beat him 20-4 and 20-0 in our two one-on-one games in our backyard LOL), so this is very exciting for him. He is about the same age I was when the Tigers won the World Series in 1968. What a thrill.

Go Pistons! Dee-fense! Dee-fense! Dee-troit! The Motor City!!!!!!! Home of the best sports and rock and roll fans in the world!

The NBA Finals start this Sunday on ABC. If the Pistons can manage to split the first two games in LA, then we will definitely be in for a good, close, dramatic series.

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