As the team of the '80s, having won five titles in eight trips to the National Basketball Assn. finals, the Lakers have watched the decade fade away--and their championship reign with it.
Seizing upon the injuries that sidelined Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, the Pistons completed a series sweep of the Lakers with a 105-97 victory at the Forum before 17,505, who bid farewell to retiring center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Torch passing seemed the night's foremost activity as the Pistons put a stranglehold on the championship trophy that had eluded the franchise for 32 seasons.
Led by guard Joe Dumars, who scored 23 points and was unanimously voted the series' most valuable player, the Pistons savored this one with all the passion that they put into their aggressive and unyielding play.
"It feels great to win," Piston guard Isiah Thomas said. "They are the team of the '80s, and we've learned a lot from the Lakers. There's nothing better than beating the champions."
For the Lakers, Tuesday marked the passing of an era. Abdul-Jabbar eased into retirement, scoring seven points and missing his last six skyhooks as the Lakers' bid for a third consecutive title ended just as unsuccessfully.
Instead of a Laker "three-peat," the Pistons felt long overdue to unseat the champions. They fell a game short in last season's championship series, when Isiah Thomas was hobbled by an ankle injury.
Just as the Pistons wondered all summer about what might have happened had injuries not befallen them, the Lakers no doubt will have similar thoughts.
They were 11-0 in the playoffs before Scott suffered a partially torn hamstring on the eve of the series opener. Then, in Game 2, Magic Johnson strained his left hamstring.
Without them, the Lakers seemed without a chance.
Not even James Worthy, who scored 40 points, could make up for the loss of the league's most valuable player and the Lakers' only consistent outside scoring threat.
"I've already thought about it," said Abdul-Jabbar, when asked whether the outcome might have changed had injuries not struck. "But that's fate, and there's nothing you can do about that. Muslims refer to that as Kismet."
The Pistons refer to it perhaps as poetic justice, or at least, payback for last season's disappointment. Rather than wallow in it, the Pistons said they used their near-miss as motivation for winning the championship.
"We had a greater will than anyone else to win from Day 1," Dumars said. "It was a terrible feeling last year in the locker room. . . . It was the worst feeling I can ever remember. But now the Bad Boys are doing a lot of talking."
In this series, however, the Pistons remained on their best behavior most of the time. There were the usual shoving and woofing, but the Lakers matched them in those categories, if nowhere else.
So, it wasn't Detroit's thuggish reputation that accounted for only the sixth championship series sweep, the last being in 1983, when the Philadelphia 76ers brushed aside another injury-riddled Laker team.
It simply was talent. Dumars emerged as more than just a defensive specialist and a nice guy. He averaged 27.3 points in the series, repeatedly exploiting the Lakers' half-court trap and taking advantage of their depleted backcourt.
Backcourt mates Thomas and Vinnie Johnson also were impressive. Thomas and Johnson, who each scored 14 points Tuesday, combined with Dumars to account for almost half of the Pistons' points.
Equally important was the Pistons' unrelenting team defense. In 15 of 17 playoff games, the Pistons held opponents under 100 points. The Lakers broke that mark twice in the finals, but on this night they fell short again.
And regardless of the injuries, the Pistons said they would have stopped the Lakers.
"Yeah, you have to feel that, that we would've won it anyway," Dumars said. "If they (Johnson and Scott) would have been on the floor, we still would have come out and thought we were the best team. We played like it."
In the absence of Scott and Johnson, Worthy did his best to hoist the Lakers onto his sturdy shoulders and at least lead them to one victory.
For the first 14 minutes, it appeared that Worthy could indeed help the Lakers avoid a sweep. He scored 17 first-quarter points, enabling the Lakers to take a 40-24 lead two minutes into the second quarter.
Though trailing by 16 points, the Pistons hardly felt threatened. At least, that is what they said afterward.
"Just not pain," Dumars said when asked what he felt in the first half. "We just had to maintain our composure. I remember in '83, Philly was down by 15 in the first half (of Game 4) and swept. Same situation. I felt we could come back, and we did.
"And when we finally did come back, the clock seemed to take forever to run out."
The Pistons made their move in the second quarter, denying Worthy the ball, and double-teamming Abdul-Jabbar, who scored 24 points in Game 3.
In the final 10 minutes of the half, the Pistons outscored the Lakers, 25-15, to trail by only six. With Rick Mahorn defending him, Worthy was held to four points and four shots in the second quarter, and Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper and David Rivers went cold.
Despite making only 46% of their field-goal attempts and 62% of their free throws, the Pistons still found themselves within striking distance at the start of the second half.
The Lakers must have realized Detroit was circling for the kill when Bill Laimbeer opened the third quarter by swishing a three-point attempt.
Rather than recoil, the Lakers fought back. In the first six minutes of the third quarter, Worthy scored 12 of the Lakers' 14 points. He made all five shots he attempted, and the Lakers held a three-point lead that dwindled to two entering the fourth quarter.
By that time, the Lakers were fatigued and in foul trouble, and the Pistons seemed intent on clinching the title they felt was rightly theirs.
The Pistons' depth was most obvious in the fourth quarter. With reserves James Edwards, Dennis Rodman and Johnson taking charge, Detroit grabbed the lead with 10 minutes to play and never saw it slip below three the rest of the way.
Edwards scored all 13 of his points in the fourth quarter but, perhaps fittingly, it was Dumars who put away the Lakers for good by sinking a jump shot with 1:04 to play that gave the Pistons a six-point lead.
Normally, that would send the Forum fans streaming for the exits. But most remained seated to honor Abdul-Jabbar, whose final seconds of his 20-year career were played out to chants of "Kareem, Kareem."
Realizing the historical significance of the Abdul-Jabbar's farewell, the Pistons paused to join the crowd and the Lakers in giving Abdul-Jabbar a long ovation when he was replaced with 19 seconds to play.
But when the buzzer sounded, the night belonged to the Pistons. Isiah Thomas christened the Pistons' first championship by heaving the ball to the ceiling. Mobbed by his teammates, Thomas was tucked on the right hip of teammate John Salley as the Pistons then sprinted off the court.
Thomas, who has said that the quest of winning a championship consumed him like a disease, was aglow afterward, amid the flow of champagne.
"It feels like I'm in heaven and I'm floating," Thomas said. "It's a great feeling. I've always wanted to say I'm No. 1, and now we are.
"We won because we've been an unselfish team all year. We won because we are dedicated to each other and disciplined enough as athletes to learn from our experiences and come back next year and just add to our knowledge."
The Lakers, who finished 68-29, vowed to be back, as well.
An era may be ending with Abdul-Jabbar's retirement, but Magic Johnson said, hamstring willing, the Lakers will try to begin the '90s the way they started this decade--with a championship.
That doesn't ease the pain in Johnson's hamstring or heart, but he said it will fuel his resolve.
"This is the toughest thing I've ever had to deal with in my life--not being able to play and help my team out," Johnson said. "It'll live with me all summer and next year. We just didn't get it done, but our hats go off to the Pistons. They did it all season. They deserve it.
"But we're not going anywhere. We'll be back. Champions never die off. We may get older, but . . . "
NBA CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES AT A GLANCE LAKERS vs. PISTONS
BEST OF SEVEN
All Times Pacific Daylight
Game 1 Pistons 109, Lakers 97 Game 2 Pistons 108, Lakers 105 Game 3 Pistons 114, Lakers 110 Game 4 Pistons 105, Lakers 97