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Pistons Send Lakers Down to Three-Feat

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Once finely tuned and seemingly cruising toward their intended destination in history, the Lakers now appear just another casualty strewn along the playoff roadside.

Don’t bother calling for service. The Lakers know they are without their designated drivers, hamstrung guards Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, and know they have a continuing problem with firing Pistons.

Sunday afternoon, in Game 3 of the National Basketball Assn. championship series at the Forum, the Lakers limped along with Johnson for the first 4 minutes 46 seconds, then shakily rode as far as they could with what was left before stalling near the end of a 114-110 loss to the Detroit Pistons, who are only one victory away from unseating the Lakers as champions.

“It’s like you have a real nice sports car and a great driver, and then all of a sudden you have to find somebody who has been driving a bus to be the driver,” Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said. “That’s a learning experience.”

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What the Lakers have learned, while falling behind 3-0 in this best-of-seven series, is how fragile a high-performance machine can be if vital components are missing, especially against the unrelenting Pistons.

Receiving a combined 74 points from guards Joe Dumars (31), Isiah Thomas (26) and Vinnie Johnson (17), the Pistons withstood Laker forays from James Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar, who accounted for 50 points and gave the Forum crowd of 17,505 reason to believe.

Worthy had 26 points, and Abdul-Jabbar 24 and a season-high 13 rebounds. But the only regular in the backcourt, Michael Cooper had to play all 48 minutes, getting 15 points and 13 assists. And Laker reserves Tony Campbell and David Rivers fit Abdul-Jabbar’s bus-driver analogy while trying to contain the Pistons’ backcourt trio.

Dumars again was nearly unstoppable. He scored 17 consecutive points in the third quarter and made the defensive play of the day with seven seconds left in the game when he blocked Rivers’ three-point attempt, then gained possession of the ball.

When Dumars rested in the fourth quarter, Vinnie Johnson scored 13 of his points, including a crucial jump shot over Campbell that gave Detroit a 109-104 lead with 2:06 to play.

Thomas consistently hounded the Laker guards, scored 26 points and had eight assists and, afterward, made sure his teammates didn’t start celebrating early.

“We’re only up 3-0,” Thomas said. “It is not over. They’re still the defending champions, and they aren’t going to quit. We have to look at Tuesday night as the seventh game.”

The Lakers don’t have to be told that no team in NBA history has ever rebounded from an 0-3 deficit to win a playoff series. They remember it from their earlier series sweeps this spring, when their opponents were faced with the seeming inevitability of eventual defeat.

“There’s only one thing left and that’s the greatest comeback in NBA history,” Laker Coach Pat Riley said. “I know now what other coaches say when they are down, 3-0. You just try to win one.”

Riley may own a copyright on the slogan, “Three-Peat,” but “Win One” seems a more realistic ambition for the Lakers now.

“I think this year, if we were whole, you would have had some great games,” Riley said. “But you take away our backcourt, and that’s nearly 50 points out of our game.”

The Pistons, who have never won an NBA title, know how the Lakers must be feeling. Their championship ambitions were hurt last season when Thomas’ ankle was injured, so they don’t feel that their title, if and when it comes, will be cheapened.

“They (the Lakers) can say that they would’ve won (with Johnson and Scott) as long as they say that, last year, the only way they won is because of me,” Thomas said.

The upper part of his left leg heavily wrapped in an elastic bandage, Johnson gave it a shot--two, actually, both misses--before leaving the game.

“I wanted to play so bad, but I just could not,” Johnson said. “I could not make the cuts, defensively, that I had to make.”

The Lakers led, 11-8, at the time of Johnson’s departure.

“He made a heck of an effort, but it just wasn’t there,” said Dumars, who guarded Johnson. “You could tell by his motion. One time, the ball was right there a couple feet away and he couldn’t get it.”

Trailing, 27-22, after the first quarter, the Lakers seemed on the verge of folding when Dennis Rodman began the second quarter with a three-point play that gave Detroit an eight-point lead. That turned out to be their biggest lead of the game.

The Lakers took their first lead in the A.M. (After Magic) when Worthy rebounded his own miss, fended off Rick Mahorn’s blanketing defense and scored to make it 35-34, Lakers. A half-minute later, Mahorn and Cooper nearly came to blows during an altercation after which a double technical foul was called.

Aided by one of Cooper’s three three-point offerings, and baskets by A.C. Green and Orlando Woolridge, the Lakers built as much as a six-point second-quarter lead. But, after another Worthy jump shot gave the Lakers a 52-46 lead, the Pistons called time out, perhaps for Coach Chuck Daly to remind his players that it was Rivers and Cooper, not Johnson and Scott playing for the Lakers.

The result was an 11-3 Piston run, helped by consecutive turnovers involving Abdul-Jabbar and Rivers and missed shots from Cooper and Rivers, that gave Detroit a 57-55 halftime lead.

In the third quarter, Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar seemed intent on opening a lead that the Lakers would maintain the rest of the way. Because of foul trouble to Campbell, Riley went with Worthy at guard, and he scored eight points off Dumars before a defensive change was made.

After Cooper sank his third three-point shot with 3:48 to play in the third, the Lakers had a seven-point lead. But it wasn’t safe, because Dumars started his scoring run.

His 17 consecutive Piston points began with 6:34 when he drove past Worthy for a layup and ended with 2:10 left when he sank a jumper. In between, Dumars sank six other jump shots, as well as a technical foul that was assesed on Green for pushing Rodman. By the end of Dumars’ siege, the Pistons still trailed, 85-84, and they entered the fourth quarter down by two points.

As in Game 2 Thursday night in Michigan, the Pistons’ depth enveloped the Lakers.

Understandably tired after scoring 21 points in the third quarter, Dumars rested most of the fourth. In his place, Daly brought in Johnson, who warmed to his nickname, Microwave, by scoring 13 points in 5:44, including the jump shot with 2:06 to play that gave Detroit a 109-104 lead.

“It was great to hit the shots, especially important shots,” Johnson said. “I made some big shots, but Joe, in the third, took some juice out of them.”

The Lakers certainly appeared to be running on empty after the Pistons took a five-point lead with 2 minutes to play. But, in a surprising burst of energy, they almost erased Detroit’s lead.

Abdul-Jabbar sank two free throws with 1:47 to play, then Worthy sank a desperation jumper to beat the shot clock to cut Detroit’s lead to 109-108 with 58 seconds to play.

But Thomas and the Pistons made the plays in what Thomas’ friend calls “Winnin’ Time.”

Thomas made a layup with 38 seconds to play and, after Abdul-Jabbar could not handle an inbounds pass from Worthy, sank two free throws with 28 seconds left for a 113-108 lead.

Momentarily losing composure, Thomas then fouled Rivers after a jump ball, an infraction Thomas later said he did not commit. Rivers sank both shots, but it would be the last points the Lakers would score.

Rivers was the Lakers’ last hope with nine seconds left and the deficit still three points. He took Cooper’s inbounds pass, dribbled behind the three-point line and shot.

But a streaking Dumars blocked Rivers’ shot, followed the ball to the baseline and, while in mid-air, found Bill Laimbeer open underneath.

Laimbeer was fouled, made one shot, and the Lakers were finally repelled.

“I saw (Dumars) coming,” Rivers said. “But I didn’t think he was coming fast enough to challenge the shot. It was a great play.”

Said Dumars: “I let (Rivers) go at first, but when he got it, I went to him as soon as I could. I really didn’t think he’d be their first option.”

A week ago, neither did the Lakers.

* NO TRIPLE CROWN

Every one at the Forum was silent Sunday, including Laker guard Magic Johnson, who knows that winning another NBA title won’t be as easy as 1-2-3. Mike Downey’s column, Page 12.

* JUST PLAIN JOE

He’s not even the Pistons’ No. 1 guard, but Joe Dumars took control Sunday, scoring 31 points, including 17 of his team’s points in a row in the third quarter. Mark Heisler’s story, Page 12.


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