VICTORY! TAKE THAT BOSTON! PISTONS GO UP 3-2

BOSTON — In the end, they simply showed too much courage to lose. It’s that simple. The gods of fate who have been stealing these heartbreaking games from Detroit and handing them to Boston must have watched this one Wednesday night and finally said: “Enough. Even we can’t be this cruel.”

Take that. The Pistons beat the Celtics. In overtime. At the Garden. Go ahead. Rub your eyes. It’s still here. Perhaps the greatest win in the history of the franchise — certainly the greatest comeback. Final score: 102-96. You want it again? The Pistons lead this Eastern Conference Final, three games to two, and they’re coming home for Game 6.

Take that.

“We don’t have to dream about Game 5 last year anymore,” John Salley said in the crowded Detroit locker room afterward. “Tonight was our time. Our time.”

How long had they waited to say that? Here, on the parquet floor, was everything that always happens in these games — except the ending. Here was overtime, Celtics getting a shot, missing, getting the rebound, missing, getting the rebound — only to have Robert Parish commit a traveling violation. Here was Adrian Dantley going to the hoop, where he has been denied so many times this series, and making the basket and getting the foul. Here was Boston with the ball and less than a minute to go — and Jim Paxson commits an offensive foul.

“REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE!” yelled Dantley as the Pistons huddled during time-outs. Dantley? He was yelling? “NO LET UP! NO LET UP!”

Twelve men. One mind-set. They had learned all the lessons that bad luck can teach. All the moral reminders that defeat can show you. Game 4 and Game 2 and last year’s Game 7 and Game 5 were planted deep inside, no one would forget, and now coach Chuck Daly was rasping in what was left of his voice.

“THIS IS WHERE YOU ALWAYS CHOKE BOYS, REMEMBER THAT!” screamed a fan behind the Detroit bench.

Thanks for the reminder.

Take that. Isiah? Simply brilliant “I have never been prouder of any team since I’ve been in Detroit,” said an exhausted but happy Isiah Thomas after the game was finally over. “We learned from our experience. That’s the best thing about it.”

Indeed. And you can begin with Thomas, who was simply brilliant: 35 points, eight rebounds, shooting from everywhere, taking the shot when other players seemed too hesitant — all this on the anniversary of the infamous
“Bird Stole The Ball” incident in Game 5 last year.

“I said to myself, ‘If we are going to lose, I’m going down shooting.’ I was going to shoot us out or shoot us in.”

In for now.

Take that.

And know this: No matter what happens in this series from now on, this was the night in which the Pistons’ belief in themselves finally matched their basketball potential. They had every reason to lay down and die after the mountain of bad luck that has accumulated on top of them — heck, half of us were expecting it after Game 4, right?

Instead, they showed remarkable faith, coming back from a 16-point deficit in the third quarter to steal this thing the way the Celtics have stolen it from them so many times. Suddenly, it was if an angel whispered in their ears: “You can do it.” And they did.

The third quarter was perhaps their finest so far. Here were the Celtics, shovels in hand, ready to bury them, and the Pistons kicked and scratched and clawed until they were on their feet. They turned the screws on their defense, they rediscovered their running game, Dantley returned to the paint, Thomas tossed up jumper after jumper — heck, Dennis Rodman even made a few clutch baskets.

They turned a hot Boston team into a cool Boston team; they literally sucked the fire out of them. By the end, the Celtics would shoot 12-for-48 in the second half. But that was not simply bad Boston luck. That was supreme Detroit effort.

“I’ve been saying it all along,” whispered a hoarse Daly — who is doing all this without a contract, remember. “We play well when we’re backed into a corner. I don’t know why. But we always do.”

“Do you feel confident now about Game 6 back home?” he was asked.

“We’ll have to play our hardest, we’ll have to have our greatest game. It would be the biggest win in the history of the franchise.”

He grinned.

“And if we lose, I’m not coming back to Boston.”

Take that. Game 4 was valuable lesson Relax. He was kidding. But the fact is, the Pistons now have won three of these playoff games on paper, and two more in many people’s minds, and they are coming home a different team than they left after blowing Game 4.

“The difference is we already made that mistake,” said Dantley, still sitting by his locker 30 minutes after the game ended. Few people knew that on Monday night, sometime after midnight, he called assistant coach Dick Versace, who lives in the same condominium complex, and said he wanted to look at the tapes again from Game 4. And he came over to the coach’s house and stayed until 2:30 a.m., memorizing the mistakes so that they would not happen again. And there he was Wednesday night, urging his teammates to never let up.

There is the difference. There is maturity. The Pistons may have finally looked in the right place to solve this maddening Celtics puzzle — inside themselves. “We haven’t broken it yet,” cautioned Thomas, “because we haven’t won the series. Until we win the series, we haven’t beaten the Celtic mind-set. We’re simply up 3-2.”

OK. Good advice. Wednesday night was certainly no guarantee — there are no guarantees in this series. But for one moment, one act, one chapter of this Russian novel that is the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons landed a real blow to the old green devil, smack between the eyes.

Take that. CUTLINE

Detroit guard Vinnie Johnson raises his fist in triumph as the Pistons pull away from the Celtics in overtime Wednesday night in Boston. Detroit leads the best-of-seven series three games to two.

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