THEY'RE FRONT AND CENTRAL - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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Detroit beat Atlanta as those teams and Milwaukee slugged it out in the NBA's rugged Central Division

To make their move to the front of the NBA's Central Division, the Detroit Pistons went out and got themselves one big behind. They already had their gold-plated superstar in Isiah Thomas, their designated villain in Bill Laimbeer, their wham-bam-thank-you sixth man in Vinnie Johnson and their Rust Belt Pat Riley in Chuck Daly, the natty head coach. And what had all this brought them? Perennial second-class status behind the Milwaukee Bucks, divisional champions for the last six seasons.

Yo, Adrian. Yo, Adrian Dantley. Welcome to the Motor City. Plant yourself on the blocks, spread those arms, call for the ball and use that all-world derriere like a battering ram. Pump, double-pump, lean, spin, head fake, pirouette, shoot, score, go to the foul line. Since Dantley's arrival from Utah in a preseason trade, Detroit has had a butt up on everyone else in the Central, the NBA's best division at the moment with three teams—the Pistons, the Atlanta Hawks and the Bucks—all over .600.

The two challengers to Milwaukee's long-running Central reign met Saturday night in Detroit's Silverdome before 44,970, the second-largest crowd ever to see an NBA game, and the Pistons beat the Hawks 102-97. "It was like two heavyweights out there," said Daly, and nobody snickered. "A very physical game." Long a pretender, but never a contender, the Pistons can now be stamped Grade A. After beating New York 122-110 on Sunday, they had the third best record in the NBA (35-17), behind the Lakers and Celtics. Atlanta (32-20) is legit, too, its 14-14 mark since mid-December notwithstanding. Once Mr. Teeny, 5'7" guard Spud Webb (torn cartilage in the right knee), and Mr. Meanie, 7'1" Tree Rollins (broken right big toe), return to the lineup, the Hawks are sure to get back on track.

If the Central Division race is a triangle, though, it's not quite equilateral. Milwaukee (35-22), with the help of a resurrected John Lucas (see following story), has stayed within striking distance, despite a series of injuries that would have destroyed lesser teams, and is still the one to beat. The Hawks would seem to be the second choice; they are well coached by Mike Fratello and have too many sets of young legs and young lungs to falter down the stretch. The Pistons, despite their current edge, are more suspect. They have avoided injuries so far and will play 13 of their last 17 games on the road. ""Right now we're a little better than last year," said Daly.

That may be false modesty. The Pistons began the season with four new players among their top eight (Dantley, forward Sidney Green and rookies John Salley and Dennis Rodman), and are still getting to know one another. "Everyone's talking about how well we've played so far, but I think we could get better," says G.M. Jack McCloskey.

It was McCloskey's off-season dice rolling that improved the Pistons' fortunes. First he took advantage of a soft draft-day market on both Salley and Rodman and got them on the 11th and 27th picks, respectively. Then he landed Dantley from Utah, giving up Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson. Next he stole Green, who is averaging 9.9 rebounds, from Chicago for the unpredictable Earl Cureton, who has since been shipped to the Clippers. The result is a quicker, tougher Piston team that is better equipped to deal with the blue-collar Bucks and the young-buck Hawks.

"Last year we had some guys who didn't mind getting embarrassed on defense," said Thomas, landing a jab that Tripucka could feel all the way out in Utah. "This year, we have guys who hate to get embarrassed."

Dantley isn't known for his defense, either, but nobody ever questioned his toughness and scoring ability. "He's the post-up player we never had," said Thomas. "Whenever you get a player like AD, you've helped your team." In the bigger, more physical Eastern Conference, Dantley may never dominate the way he did in the West. But he's still the key player for the Pistons, the "go-to guy," as Daly calls him. Against Atlanta on Saturday, the Pistons twice called AD's number in crunch time, and he responded with a short jump shot and two free throws—he finished with a game-high 23 points—to secure the win.

Sound simple? Well, it's not. In a 107-103 loss to those same Hawks in Atlanta four nights earlier, Dantley scored only nine points. Championship-caliber teams have a well-defined identity, and that's what Detroit is still seeking. Is it a wide-open, fast-break team—Isiah's team—as it was pre-AD? Or is it a team that will wait for its new star to set up in the half-court offense, which is where Dantley, a two-time NBA scoring champion, is most effective?

So far it has been some of both. In their first nine games, the Pistons pounded it inside to Dantley, and he averaged 23.6 points. But Detroit was only 3-6 in those games, so it shifted into Isiah-gear and became a fast-break, perimeter-shooting team. "It would've been ludicrous to get a player like Adrian and then not try to exploit him," said Thomas. "It was a process we had to go through, not a mistake."

Since then Dantley has had to pick his spots, and sometimes they're not familiar ones. He often finds himself playing on the perimeter or out in the open court facing the basket. "What this offense has done is turn a scorer into a shooter," said Dantley.

"Isiah went out of his way to accommodate Adrian in the beginning," said Laimbeer. "But since then it's been AD who has made the adjustments."

"My expectation when I came here was that they'd go to me on the blocks," said Dantley. "They did early, then stopped. My game has always been to wear my opponent down, keep going at him. I can't do that here because we don't play that style." Score a three-pointer for honesty. Most players would pretend everything is rosy while seething inside, but not AD, whose face seems to reveal a man swinging between two moods—unhappy and unhappier. It's not that bad, is it, AD?

"Well, I'm not taking the pounding I used to, and my body hasn't felt better in a long time," he said. "In Utah, I was used like Earl Campbell. Now, I'm used like Tony Dorsett. Maybe that will be good in the long run."

In Utah, he was also used as a frequent target for Frank Layden's monologues. The Jazz coach-G.M. never forgave Dantley for missing the first six games of the 1984—85 season in a contract squabble, and their relationship degenerated into a war of words that threatened to tear the team apart. Once he held out, Dantley was a trade waiting to happen, and Layden's bad-attitude label stuck to him like a long-armed defender. "It's unfortunate when one guy is able to create a false image of a player, and that image sticks," said Thomas. "That's what Layden or Lydon, whatever his name is, did to AD."

"When I got here," said Dantley, "everybody said, 'Let's see what he can do when he's not the star.' Well, I made the adjustment. I changed." Indeed, the task for the Pistons now is to tailor their game to Dantley's, to find the seams in a defense that result from the attention he draws down low. "Great teams like the Lakers and the Celtics read those double teams instantly," said Thomas. "We've got to start doing that."

How Dantley weaves his magic spell inside is one of the NBA's great mysteries. He's listed at 6'5" but appears at least an inch or two shorter. "I don't even want to know how tall he is," says Daly. Dantley's reply: "I got measured three years ago because I had a bet with somebody, and I was six-five." His face wore the hint of a smile. Was he serious? "The important thing," said Green, "is that he plays like he's seven feet."

Right now, that's what all the Pistons are doing.



Up in arms in Atlanta on Tuesday were Detroit's Rick Mahorn, blocking Kevin Willis (left), and Jon Koncak, taking on Thomas.



Joe Dumars (4) has done the job for the Pistons as Thomas's backcourt running mate.



In Detroit on Saturday, Dantley and Thomas helped hold Dominique Wilkins (21) to 18 points, while AD led all scorers with 23.