ONE-POINT AGONY NIGHTMARES CAN HAPPEN AT HOME, TOO

And they say nightmares happen only in Boston Garden. Forget that. Here, as the buzzer sounded in a summer-hot Silverdome Monday afternoon, was Boston’s Danny Ainge, heaving a basketball high in celebration and pointing bleep-you fingers at the disbelieving crowd.

“YES! YES!” he shouted, his team suddenly alive again in this gut-twisting Eastern Conference final against the Pistons.

“No . . . no . . .” the crowd seemed to whisper.

Not again. Not this same damn thing. Here were the Pistons walking off the court, losers by a point, 79-78, in a bizarre, embarrassing game in which their final two shots were an illegal basket and an air ball, in which they missed 20 shots in a row — 20? can that be right? — in which they still had a lead in the fourth quarter, and finally, in the last maddening seconds, looked destiny square in the eyes . . .

. . . and blinked.

“We should have taken it, we needed to take it, we didn’t take it,” moaned Bill Laimbeer in the dejected locker room afterward — and those words must have gone out his mouth and back into his ears. For Laimbeer (29 points, the high scorer) had the best shot in the final eight seconds, a fairly open jumper from the left of the key. He should have taken it.

He did not.

Instead he hesitated for an instant, then passed to Joe Dumars in a pack under the rim. Dumars, with the seconds ticking off in his head, let fly a desperate, high-arching shot over Dennis Johnson. It rose with dreams and came down with nothing — air ball — and the Celtics grabbed it as if it were an oxygen tank and they were under water.

Suddenly, they were breathing again.

“When you kill a snake in the morning, it still twitches until sundown,” said a frustrated coach Chuck Daly, who has lived this nightmare too many times, after the Celtics tied the series at 2-2. “You’ve got to cut its head off! We haven’t been willing to do that.”

Not yet. Not Monday.

Not again. Always just an inch better

What happened here? Why is it that every time the Pistons have these Celtics pinned to the floor, they turn into some kind of green mist and slip away? Wasn’t this the game to end all that? Wasn’t this the chance to go up 3-1 in this series, to really take control — all they had to do was beat Boston in the Silverdome, where the Celtics had lost nine in a row? Wasn’t it?

It was. But instead, at the moment of truth, the two teams played a game that Isiah Thomas would claim “neither team deserved to win.” A game in which the Pistons’ jump shooting was like like trying to force a bowling ball into a Coke bottle. Detroit scored just 10 points in the first quarter. Just 36 in the first half.

In other years, the Celtics would have blown this game open by 40 points. But the Celtics were mediocre this day at best, and it seems the Pistons’ curse that Boston will just be an inch better in these nail-biting affairs, just one bad pass better, just one free throw better. . . .

Free throws? Good Lord. Not again. Adrian Dantley missed one in the final minutes that might have assured a tie. Passes? Larry Bird got one to Dennis Johnson for Boston’s last basket, while Dantley countered with a lob for John Salley, who rose high above the rim — only to see the ball go in on its own!

“The rules say if you touch it as it’s going in, it still counts as a basket,” protested Salley, who claimed he did just that. The referees disagreed. And it was typical of the horrific finish. When Dumars’ last shot was grabbed by Robert Parish (who may well have committed goaltending, a call that wasn’t made, but then, does that surprise you anymore?) the 26,625 fans seemed to go numb, they didn’t move, they cold only watch, swallow, and feel that familiar ache in the pit of their stomachs.

Not again.

No killer instinct

What a shame. What a pain. There is a feeling in Detroit this morning of frustration, of blown chances, of sympathy. It is a confusing mix, because you want to blame somebody, but whom do you blame?

Well, let’s be real honest. The Pistons are a wonderful, exciting, hopeful team — but this time, the nightmare was themselves. “Any time you shoot 33 percent, you don’t deserve to win,” admitted Laimbeer.

And anytime your team is tentative when it should be aggressive, and anytime your final quarter is your disaster, and anytime you pass up an open shot, mess up an inbounds pass, miss a free throw. . . .

This ugly truth remains: Detroit still must learn to covet success more than it fears failure. On Monday, with the reins in their hands, they looked
. . . well, how can we say this?

They looked scared.

“We were playing not to lose instead of to win,” admitted a soft-spoken Thomas, the captain. And he was right. Instead of respecting the Celtics, paying homage to their greatness, the Pistons should have come out and effectively said: “Get lost, Boston. We’re going to the finals and you can’t stop us.”

That is the killer instinct that Daly was talking about. It comes with time. It comes with experience. It is still quite possible that it will come for Detroit in this series — which is now a best-of-three affair, with two games in Boston. But it will have to be earned.

“We never seem to get anything the easy way,” said Laimbeer, shaking his head. “Everything’s got to be the hard way. Everything.”

The optimistic will say that most things worth having are hard to get. The pessimistic will see Boston as a demon that holds all the magic dust, a team that can win despite a shooting slump by Larry Bird, despite a bench that plays as stiff as the wood it sits on, despite fatigue, age and all the other Boston gripes.

The realistic? The realistic will say: Game 5, Wednesday. Boston Garden.

“You see anything on there that surprises you?” someone asked Thomas, as he sat by his locker, staring at the final stat sheet.

Silence.

“Anything on there that doesn’t surprise you?” the questioner persisted.

Silence.

“Anything that . . . um . . .”

He crunched the paper into a small ball and threw it into the corner.

We play on. CUTLINES: Piston guard Isiah Thomas reacts with disbelief after fouling Boston’s Dennis Johnson late in Monday’s playoff game at the Silverdome. Johnson’s subsequent free throw won the game for the Celtics. Pistons owner William Davidson, left, has his cheering section of Sen.Don Riegle and Gov. Blanchard during Game 4 Monday at the Silverdome. STATE EDITION PAGE 1A:Celtic Danny Ainge and Piston Isiah Thomas vie for a loose ball during Game 4 at the Silverdome Monday.

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