The little man came up the court dribbling as if by memory, never bothering to look down. Isiah Thomas does not have to look.

His eyes darted left and then right, like a cat trapped in an alley, looking for a way out. Positioned in front of him was Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps the best basketball player in the western world.Thomas looked at Johnson for a split second, his brain racing. Then he did a stutter step right out of the Chicago playgrounds where he learned this game and went right around Mr. Magic.

The little man was supposed to have a bad back. He had missed Detroit's afternoon shoot-around before Tuesday's game. And the pre-game reports made it sound like he'd be in a wheelchair. But here he was, dashing down the court like a thoroughbred.

With Johnson out of the way, Thomas closed in on the foul circle. Would the ball go left to Adrian Dantley or right to James Edwards? Only Isiah knew for sure and he wasn't telling until the last second.

Finally, the little man chose Dantley and fed him the pass, producing two points for the Pistons. It was one of a dozen assists Thomas accumulated in the game.

Bad back, huh? Yeah, bad for the Lakers.

Thomas played 36 minutes, contributing 10 points and nine rebounds. One more board and he would have had a triple double.

Now before you begin thinking this guy is some kind of Superman, take Thomas' word that he is merely mortal. His back was sore. He was hurting, even if it didn't look that way. "I couldn't jump and shoot," he said. "All I could do was shoot set shots."

So the Pistons had to settle for his 16-footer to start the third quarter and his 3-pointer to end it. The two baskets punctuated the period in which Detroit sealed this victory.

By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, Johnson, a mild-mannered man, was perturbed enough to take an uncharacteristic shot at Thomas, who is an old friend.

Didn't Johnson have any compassion for the little man with the bad back?

"No matter if it's Isiah or the 12th man on the team, I'm going to check him," Johnson said. "My elbow's supposed to be there and he ran into it."

Isiah was not disturbed by this nastiness. He figured Johnson was just doing his job. "He made the statement that if I came through the lane, he'd slam me," Thomas said. "I came through the lane and he slammed me."