1989: Pistons versus Lakers Round Two (Kareem’s Final Season)

Background

Coming off their heartbreaking loss in the 1988 NBA Finals, the Detroit Pistons entered the 1989 season on a mission. They ripped through the Eastern Conference, winning a franchise-best 63 games en route to the number one seed in the playoffs. A major transaction occurred in February when Detroit traded veteran starter Adrian Dantley to the Dallas Mavericks for former All-Star Mark Aguirre. The trade proved to be beneficial as the Pistons went 32-13 before the trade and 31-6 afterwards. In the playoffs, Detroit swept the Celtics and Bucks in the first two rounds before facing Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons dispatched the young Chicago team in six games and moved on to their second straight NBA Finals, this time with homecourt advantage.

After repeating as champions in 1988, the Lakers looked to accomplish an historic “three-peat” in 1989. Before the season started, captain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar announced that he would retire at year’s end, and the future Hall of Famer was honored with a pregame tribute in every arena throughout the year. The Lakers once again dominated the Western Conference with 57 wins, led by Magic Johnson‘s stellar play–he would win his second career MVP award. In the playoffs, Los Angeles found little opposition unlike the previous season. The Lakers swept the first three rounds of the playoffs against the Portland Trailblazers, Seattle SuperSonics, and Phoenix Suns. After defeating the Suns, Los Angeles moved on to their third straight NBA Finals, again matched up against the Detroit Pistons.

Lineups

The Pistons’ backcourt in 1989 was identical to the previous season. Isiah Thomas continued to start at point guard alongside Joe Dumars at shooting guard. The only difference in the starting lineup was at small forward, where newcomer Mark Aguirre filled Dantley’s shoes following their trade. Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer were still the starters at power forward and center respectively.

Detroit’s bench was still one of its biggest strengths. Vinnie Johnson continued to light up the scoreboard as the backup guard, and Dennis Rodman was a blossoming defensive player behind Aguirre at small forward. In the post, John Salley and James Edwards served as backup big men. John Long, Fennis Dembo, and Micheal Williams scarcely played in the NBA Finals.

Led by MVP Magic Johnson at point guard, the “Showtime” Lakers continued to thrive on fastbreaks and uptempo offense. Their backcourt suffered a loss before the NBA Finals started as shooting guard Byron Scott injured his hamstring in practice. Michael Cooper filled in as the second backcourt starter in the series. The frontcourt was identical to the two previous seasons with James Worthy and A.C. Green at forward and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center in his final season.

With Cooper starting, the Lakers’ bench was considerably thinner. Tony Campbell now played the role of backup guard. Newcomer Orlando Woolridge backed up Worthy at small forward, and Mychal Thompson continued to back up both Green and Kareem as the third big man. David Rivers, Jeff Lamp, and Mark McNamara didn’t see the floor often in the NBA Finals.

Game One: Lakers 97, Pistons 109

In 1989 the Pistons played their first full season at The Palace at Auburn Hills, and in game one of the NBA Finals they christened the arena with a well-earned victory. Detroit controlled the game from start to finish and took advantage of Byron Scott’s absence. The Pistons’ three guard rotation of Thomas, Dumars, and Johnson combined for 65 points and 18 assists on 63% shooting. Detroit’s stifling defense held the Lakers to 47% from the floor and dealt them their first loss of the playoffs. Magic (17/14) and Worthy (17 points) were the only Lakers’ starters in double figures, and the bench trio of Thompson, Campbell, and Woolridge combined for 36 points.

Game Two: Lakers 105, Pistons 108

The Lakers held the lead throughout most of game two, and it looked as though they would even the series heading back to Los Angeles. Tragedy struck, however, as Magic Johnson left the game in the third quarter with a hamstring injury. After Magic’s departure, the Pistons rallied to tie the game and then take the lead in the fourth quarter. The Lakers, without their star, managed to climb back to within three with one second left but couldn’t get a shot off to tie the game. Detroit’s guard trio again led the way with a game-high 33 points from Dumars, 21 points and 7 assists from Isiah, and 18 points from Vinnie Johnson off the bench. Magic recorded 18 points and 9 assists before his injury, and Cooper, Worthy, and Campbell combined for 53 points for the Lakers. It was not enough as the Pistons now held a 2-0 series lead heading back to Los Angeles with Magic’s status uncertain.

Game Three: Pistons 114, Lakers 110

Back at The Forum, Magic Johnson suited up and attempted to play in game three, but he had to come out after five minutes due to his previously injured hamstring. The Lakers managed to keep the game close in the first half, and tempers flared after Tony Campbell threw the ball at Isiah Thomas and a scuffle between Rick Mahorn and Michael Cooper. Dumars took over in the third quarter, scoring 17 straight points for Detroit during one stretch to reclaim the lead. Vinnie Johnson was the catalyst for the Pistons in the fourth quarter as he scored 13 of his 17 points off the bench. With less than 20 seconds left, the Lakers–down by three–threw it in to rookie David Rivers who attempted a three-pointer. Dumars made a miraculous play as he blocked the shot and still saved the ball from going out of bounds to preserve their lead. The same old script saw the Pistons’ guards combine for 74 points (31 from Dumars), and Rodman tallied a monster 19 rebounds off the bench. Kareem (24/13), Worthy (26/7), and Cooper (15/13) all fought courageously for the shorthanded Lakers, but their performances fell by the wayside as Detroit moved to 3-0, one game away from the world championship.

Game Four: Pistons 105, Lakers 97

Facing elimination, the Lakers jumped out to a 12 point lead after the first quarter in game four. Detroit would rally back, and the game was a closely-contested affair until the fourth quarter. Dumars once again led the Pistons in scoring with 23 points and 6 assists, and five other players scored in double-figures for Detroit. Worthy exploded for 40 points, but his heroic effort was not enough to offset the Lakers’ defensive and offensive lapses in the final period. With 18 seconds left and Los Angeles trailing for good, Kareem left the floor for the last time to a thunderous ovation. Detroit’s victory completed the sweep and captured the first championship in franchise history for the Pistons.

Aftermath

By averaging 27.3 points and 6 assists per game while also playing suffocating defense, Joe Dumars was named the 1989 NBA Finals MVP. The Pistons had no intention of slowing down the following season. Despite winning four fewer games in the regular season, Detroit entered the 1990 playoffs with the number one seed again. They fought their way to their fourth straight Eastern Conference Championship, and the Pistons reached the NBA Finals for the third straight season after outlasting Michael Jordan’s Bulls in a seven-game series. In the 1990 NBA Finals, Detroit looked to defend their title against the Portland Trailblazers, playing in their first NBA Finals since 1977.

1990 was a year of changes for the Lakers. Despite Kareem’s retirement, Los Angeles once again won their division and the number one seed in the playoffs behind 63 regular season wins. Magic Johnson captured his second straight MVP, but the team struggled in the second round and fell to the young Phoenix Suns in five games. The Lakers failed in their goal of reaching the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season, and Pat Riley stepped down as head coach despite winning the 1990 Coach of the Year award. Although they would reach the NBA Finals again in 1991, the Lakers would not find the same success in the 1990s as they had experienced in the 1980s.

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