AT last, the NBA Finals played the Palace Tuesday night. Only 215 days since the regular season started, 112 days since the Detroit Pistons traded away Adrian Dantley, 52 days since the Los Angeles Lakers last lost a basketball game and 35 days since the Jazz - remember them? - went home for the summer, the NBA's Real Thing finally started.
This was all worth waiting for, if you happen to like defense.After advertising the Lakers' fastbreaking "Showtime" image and rising to new levels of TV popularity in the 1980s, the NBA proudly presents a revolutionary idea in pro basketball. Can you say defense?
Detroit's 109-97 Game 1 victory was vintage '89 Pistons, complete with a skull-and-crossbones flag carried around the court before the game and 21,000 fans who turned the NBA's most beautiful arena into the homemade sign capital of the world. Everybody but end-of-the-benchman Fennis Dembo seems to have his own designated section.
Suburban Detroit turns on when the Pistons get defensive, and they were up to their usual stuff against the Lakers, who were missing guard Byron Scott. "We're going to keep up the intensity, as though he was here," said Detroit guard Joe Dumars, and the right-column scoreboard number - 97 - backed him up.
The Pistons have still not allowed 100 points in a playoff game this season, taking the best that everybody from Kevin McHale to Fred Roberts to Michael Jordan had to offer. The streak covers 14 postseason games, and Coach Chuck Daly says, "That's shocking to me."
Magic Johnson is taking his turn against the Pistons now, but he had to work awfully hard for his 17 points without Scott available for help.
Magic should just take the game over himself, right? "I'm going to take as many (shots) as I can get up," he said afterward. "They know that, too."
The Lakers' .467 shooting was actually better than the Pistons' season defensive average, but they never really had anything going. Which brings us to the nightly question: Who to blame?
"We didn't execute anything we had to execute," said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from his vantage point on the Laker bench, where he spent the second half.
"Their shots just didn't fall - we take no credit for stopping them," said Detroit's Isiah Thomas, sounding about as sincere as Eddie Haskell talking to Ward and June Cleaver.
"The biggest problem," said Laker Coach Pat Riley, going right to the issue, "was the Detroit Pistons."
Make no mistake, these Pistons are a little different from the original Detroit breakthrough team of the '80s that featured Kelly Tripucka and once joined Denver for the highest-scoring game in NBA history. Those days are long gone now. The Detroit Lions give up more points than these guys.
The switch started with the drafting of John Salley and Dennis Rodman in June 1986, continued with the trade of Tripucka and Kent Benson to the Jazz later that summer and went another step with the trade of Dantley to Dallas last February, giving Rodman even more playing time.
The way the Pistons talk, you get the idea they actually enjoy this defense stuff.
"That's the bottom line, getting guys to work," Daly says of the defensive approach. "Our aggressiveness tonight was kind of overwhelming."
Just imagine what the Finals would be like if the Jazz had gone through the Western Conference playoffs as planned. They'd have played the Pistons in six or seven games that either would have changed the look of pro hoops completely or left nobody scoring - or standing.
If defense lost some appeal when the Jazz were knocked out by Golden State in the first round, it's back in a big way in the Palace. The Lakers never saw anything like this in breezing through 11 Western playoff games.
For the moment, they're not fazed by their first defeat since an April 15 loss to the crosstown Clippers. "No problem," Magic Johnson said. "This is a long way from being over."
They're also a long way from a third straight NBA championship, even if they did close fast Tuesday in the fourth quarter when TV sets were switching off all over the country and almost broke the 100 barrier. For now, Showtime never had it so bad.