They did it the hard way - and they almost didn't do it at all! The Los Angeles Lakers won the 1988 National Basketball Association championship Tuesday night with a 108-105 seventh-game victory over the Detroit Pistons that was still in doubt with six seconds left on the game clock.
With its triumph, Los Angeles accomplished two major things. The Lakers became the first team in 19 years (the last was the 1968-69 Boston Celtics) to win back-to-back NBA titles. They also became the first team in NBA history to win three consecutive seven-game series in rolling to their fifth world title in the '80s.
En route to glory Los Angeles swept San Antonio 3-0 in a best-of-five preliminary series, then was extended to the full seven-game limit by Utah, Dallas, and of course Detroit.
The following isn't meant to take anything away from the Lakers, who fought their way through more barbed-wire defenses than you'd find on a beachhead, and who twice came from behind in this series. But had this game been played in Detroit and/or without injuries to Isiah Thomas, the NBA might have a new champion now.
Often when you try to explain how tough it is to win on the road, people think they know what you're talking about, only they don't. There are only two ways this situation can be understood: either by having been a player yourself or by traveling and living with a team regularly. It's not something that can be seen on TV; it has to be felt.
Los Angeles coach Pat Riley knew how close his team had come to losing this game when he told reporters afterwards: ``In the end Detroit had us holding on. We had a 15-point lead and they almost took it away from us. They are a great organization with great personnel.
``In many ways, the Pistons remind me of the 1978-79 Lakers [Pat was an assistant coach on that team], who lost to Denver in the first round of the playoffs that year, yet won the world championship the following season,'' Riley continued. ``I know the Detroit players feel bad and probably don't want to hear comments like that right now, but it's true.
``The fact is, the Pistons almost made it happen this year. We knew they were good because you don't beat the Boston Celtics in a conference final unless you know what you're doing. Even though we had a sizable lead going into the fourth period, Detroit made a great scoring run at us that got them back in the game. We didn't play well for the last six minutes, and some of that was my fault because I allowed us to stop running.''
Detroit led 52-47 at halftime, but L.A. reeled off 10 straight points at the start of the second half and outscored the Pistons 36-21 in the third period to apparently settle the issue. The Lakers increased their lead to 15 points in the fourth period before Detroit's last surge cut the margin to two points on three occasions in the final minutes. The Pistons could never quite catch up, though, and L.A. held on for the triumph.
Although James Worthy (44 minutes played; 16 rebounds; 10 assists; and 36 points in the final game) was named the series' Most Valuable Player, pieces of that trophy also belonged to several other Lakers. They included Magic Johnson, A.C. Green, Byron Scott, Mychal Thompson, and Michael Cooper.
While Johnson wasn't as spectacular as usual, Magic's playmaking and floor leadership, plus the confidence he instills in those around him, can never be weighed on any conventional scale. And his 19 points plus 14 assists in the final game certainly had a lot to do with the outcome.
On the other side of the ledger, Detroit guard Joe Dumars, who took over Thomas's leadership and scoring role when Isiah was only able to play 28 minutes Tuesday night because of injuries, finished with 25 points. This was eight more points than anyone else on the Pistons had, and nine more than Adrian Dantley, who led the team in scoring during the regular season. Three times earlier in the series, Dantley had burned the Lakers with 34, 25, and 27 points.
Detroit coach Chuck Daly, whose team's 18 turnovers (15 in the second half) obviously bothered him, summed things up in a nutshell when he said, ``I'm proud of this team. We came a long way, but we didn't play smart when we needed to, and we're going to have to live with that until next year. L.A. really beat us with its aggressive defense.''
One thing the Lakers are going to have to look at between now and the start of the 1988-89 season is the odometer on 41-year-old center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a 20-year NBA veteran. Sometime between the time the Lakers won their division championship and the second round of this year's playoffs, Kareem's warranty expired.
Abdul-Jabbar not only can't carry a team every night anymore, he was frequently outplayed this year by younger centers who never did and never will have his talent. Most of the sand is in the bottom of the hourglass for Kareem, who played only 29 minutes in the championship final, scored only four points (none in the first half), and had three rebounds. He ran and moved toward the basket like a guy handcuffed to an anvil.
Asked to confirm a television report that he had decided to retire, Abdul-Jabbar replied: ``Well, it was wrong. People also said Mark Twain was going to retire.'' Once you know that the Lakers' owner, Jerry Buss, has agreed to pay Kareem $3 million for next season, the subject evaporates rather quickly.
Although Riley refused to guarantee another title for the Lakers next season the way he did immediately after his team won last year's championship, Pat did make it a point to remind writers that basically he still has a young team. Earlier when Riley tried to say something in the victorious locker room that his players thought might be another media-attention-getting statement, they shoved a towel in his mouth.
``While we may be an old team in terms of battle fatigue, we are really a young team except for Kareem,'' Riley explained. He was referring to starters Worthy, Johnson, Scott, and Green, who are still in their 20s. Popping up like dandelions, too, is the perennial rumor that the Lakers are on the trail of Washington center Moses Malone, who with the right people around him might bring them another title.
Riley finished up by saying that ``although the Lakers are a talented team, their greatness is not in their talent but in their hearts!''