It took both the suddenness of a sprinter and the heart of a marathoner, but the Lakers crossed the finish line of their two-year run Tuesday night at the Forum with history borne triumphantly on their shoulders and brazen guarantees safely tucked away in their memories.
With James Worthy carrying the baton in Game 7, the Lakers outdistanced the Detroit Pistons, 108-105, to become the first team since the Boston Celtics in 1969 to repeat as champions of the National Basketball Assn. Worthy, voted the most valuable player of the series, chose this night to have the first triple-double of his career--36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists--bringing the Lakers to what may be the end of their championship ring cycle--five rings in the '80s.
"I don't have any feelings left just now--I feel raw for them," said Laker Coach Pat Riley, who had pledged the Lakers to another title within a half-hour of the team's championship victory over the Boston Celtics in 1987.
"At the end of the game, what were we doing? We were watching a great basketball team hold on. We were holding on, and we had a big enough lead to do so."
But barely. The Lakers, who had burst ahead of the Pistons by making their first 10 shots of a third quarter that began with Detroit ahead by 5 and ended with the Lakers up by 10, nearly had a 15-point lead expire in the last 7:27.
Detroit, which limped into the game with Isiah Thomas playing on one good leg, pulled within one point, 106-105, on Bill Laimbeer's three-point basket with 6 seconds left. But Magic Johnson, who had 19 points and 14 assists, spotted A.C. Green for the breakaway layup that finished off the Pistons and completed what Johnson called the most difficult season of his life.
Riley had better not make any more pledges within earshot of Johnson just yet.
"I just hope I don't see him on vacation again this summer," said Johnson, who had bumped into Riley on a beach in the Bahamas a year ago.
Michael Cooper, who incinerated his shooting slump with 12 points, including two three-pointers, was even more emphatic about Riley not setting any future tasks for this team.
"If he says anything like that," Cooper said, "I'll stick my fist so far down his throat he won't be able to talk for a week."
For a time, the Pistons placed a heavy boot on Laker necks, taking a 52-47 halftime lead as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went scoreless, Byron Scott had just 5 points, Cooper was 0 for 4 from three-point land and Magic Johnson had as many turnovers (3) as baskets (3).
Thomas, meantime, a doubtful starter who was still on crutches when he arrived at the Forum Tuesday afternoon, had 10 points and 4 steals by the intermission, having dribbled unchallenged down the floor for the basket that gave Detroit its five-point advantage.
"We wanted to stop throwing the ball away," Johnson said. "We had 11 turnovers in the first half--we'd been averaging 11 a game.
"We wanted to establish our game in the first three minutes (of the third quarter). Let them know, 'We're here.' "
Scott was the first one to go calling, throwing down a thunderous dunk over Piston center Laimbeer on the break. That triggered a succession of Laker relays downcourt, with Worthy scoring seven straight points and Scott pouring in 11--including a three-pointer that finished off a 23-7 Laker run and gave Los Angeles a 70-59 lead.
The Lakers didn't miss a shot in the period until Scott put up an airball with 5:05 left.
"They seized the game with their ferocious defense," Detroit Coach Chuck Daly said.
But the Pistons made a last grab to get it back--with both Thomas and Adrian Dantley on the bench--in the last seven minutes.
"I don't even know what happened in the last minute, minute and a half," Riley said. "I was just holding on."
The mouth of Motown, Piston forward John Salley, showed he had the mettle to match his wit with 10 points in the final period, most of them coming in heavy traffic.
In a four-minute span, Detroit sliced 13 points off its deficit, outscoring the Lakers, 17-4, to pull within two, 98-96, after Laimbeer blocked a pass by Abdul-Jabbar and sent Dennis Rodman away for an easy layup.
Magic Johnson missed a spinning layup attempt, but Worthy tipped once, then twice before getting the ball to drop. Vinnie Johnson answered with a jumper to make it a two-point game again, and after a pair of free throws by Magic, Laimbeer dived to the floor to save a loose ball, with Dumars converting that save into a jumper that cut the Laker margin to 102-100 with 1:18 left.
It was still a three-point game when Laimbeer blocked a shot by Worthy, but Rodman elected to pull up for a jumper on the break, a decision that had Daly going crazy on the Piston bench. The shot bounced off, Scott rebounded and then made two free throws with 30 seconds left.
That should have been enough, but Cooper missed two free throws, and Dumars scored to make it 105-102 with 16 seconds left. With 14 seconds to go, Worthy was fouled, but he made just one, and Laimbeer's three-pointer made it a one-point game with 6 seconds left.
Johnson, however, put a stop to the mounting hysteria right there with his court-length pass to Green.
"What did Jackie Gleason say? How sweet it is!" said Mychal Thompson.
Sweet, yes, especially for Worthy, who may have played the finest 44 minutes of his life. Asked who would have received his vote for MVP, Worthy said: "If you're talking about individuals, I think Magic, because he was so consistent every night. Then I'd have to vote for myself, for the first time in my career."
For Johnson, this championship season had its bittersweet aspect, as well.
"This was the hardest championship season, not just because we went to seven games three times," Johnson said. "Playing against Isiah in a championship is probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do--trying to stay away from each other, trying not to be friends.
"That's the most difficult thing I've ever had to go through, staying focused on what I had to do. . . . I know Isiah. His heart is as big as this room."
Johnson and Thomas, of course, are best of friends, though that friendship nearly erupted into open conflict in this series. Magic was still reflecting on their closeness when another voice boomed into the interview room.
"It's the Magic Johnson show. It's your boy talking, No. 21."
That was, of course, Cooper, who found his voice about the time he found his shot.
And where did Cooper rank on Johnson's list of friends?
"Somewhere way down," Johnson said, laughing.
While other Lakers were laughing and carrying on in the last half-minute, Johnson was still cold sober.
"With 20 seconds to go, we were celebrating like we were the champs," he said. "I said, 'Hey, don't celebrate.'
"I'm always scared. I'm scared until the final buzzer goes off."
And when it did, whatever fears the Lakers had that the Pistons would stick a stiletto in their back-to-backs evaporated as well.
This, Riley said, was their greatest championship, one for which he'll replace his 1985 ring--the one that was earned in Boston Garden--with this one.
"I'll guarantee one thing," Riley said. "We're going to enjoy ourselves."
LAKERS vs. PISTONS
NBA CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
Game 1 Pistons 105, Lakers 93 Game 2 Lakers 108, Pistons 96 Game 3 Lakers 99, Pistons 86 Game 4 Pistons 111, Lakers 86 Game 5 Pistons 104, Lakers 94 Game 6 Lakers 103, Pistons 102 Game 7 Lakers 108, Pistons 105
HOME, SWEET HOME
The home team has won 11 of the 14 NBA Championship Series that have gone to a seventh game. Home team is in bold type (*):
Year Game 7 score 1951 Rochester 79*, New York 55 1952 Minneapolis 82*, New York 65 1954 Minneapolis 87*, Syracuse 80 1955 Syracuse 92*, Fort Wayne 91 1957 Boston 125*, St. Louis 123 (2 OT) 1960 Boston 122*, St. Louis 103 1962 Boston 110*, Lakers 107 (OT) 1966 Boston 95*, Lakers 93 1969 Boston 108, Lakers 106* 1970 New York 113*, Lakers 99 1974 Boston 102, Milwaukee 87* 1978 Washington 105, Seattle 99* 1984 Boston 111*, Lakers 102 1988 Lakers 108*, Detroit 105