They came off the court like bounty hunters who had just killed a bunny rabbit. The Pistons shot the Bullets — dead, finally, the fifth game of this best-of-five opening round playoff series. There was no champagne. No loud cheering in the locker room.

There was . . . relief.

“What did this series teach you?” someone asked center Bill Laimbeer, after Detroit beat Washington, 99-78, to advance to the NBA’s second round.

“That every game is a bitch,” he said.

Neatly put. And if he’s got the theory, we’ve got the evidence. Until the Pistons scampered home Sunday, it was hard to tell which team in this series had won the Central Division title and which team could win five more games and still be looking up at a .500 season.

What went on here? Why were the Pistons pushed to the brink against the Bullets, a team that features (Muggsy) Bogues, 5- feet-3, and Manute Bol, 7-feet-6, who together add up to one decent player at the YMCA?

That depends on whom you ask.

“They didn’t lay down,” said John Salley.

“We didn’t have the emotional factor until today,” said Laimbeer.

“I’m not sure we’re that much better a team,” said coach Chuck Daly. “I don’t think any team has it easy with any other, except maybe Boston and LA.”

OK. Wait a minute. I know Chuck Daly could look at a full glass and still see it as half-empty (“You just pour a little out, and what have you got?”), but the fact is, the Pistons only did Sunday what they should have done last week.

And to say so would not be bragging by Detroit. Hey. The Pistons were 54-28 during the regular season. The Bullets were 38-44.

Doesn’t that count for something? It wasn’t a pretty game “Were you worried about losing and seeing the season end?” someone asked Isiah Thomas when the game was all over.

“No,” he said.

“Did you feel extra pressure to win?”

“No,” he said.

Well. OK. Maybe he’s psychic. Here, Sunday at the Silverdome, was the game people expected to see all series: the Pistons building a steady lead, slapping on points like clay on a sculpture, Adrian Dantley backing in, Thomas running in, Dennis Rodman slamming in, Laimbeer . . . well, whatever you call what he does.

It was not a real interesting game. Nor was it pretty. But when they matched Washington against Detroit in the first place — hey, nobody expected Basketball’s Greatest Hits. What they expected were comfortable wins by Detroit. What they got were four close games, some annoyingly bad performances, and one comfortable win by Detroit.

“Was it them playing good or us playing bad?” mused the basso-voiced Dantley, wrapped in a towel, once the victory was complete. “I think it was them playing good.

“They were loose until this game. That happens in some early rounds — the favored team is tight, the underdog is loose. It’s not gonna be like that from now on.”

Now on means the Chicago Bulls, the Pistons’ next opponents, in the best-of-seven second round, which begins Tuesday night. Chicago tied for second in the Central Division. Chicago won 50 games. Chicago will be tough. Intensity cannot be a question mark this time.

“It’ll be nice not dealing with Moses Malone anymore,” sighed Rick Mahorn, his alligator smile spreading at the thought. “Now we can deal with superstar Michael Jordan.”

Easy for him to say. Jordan plays guard.

Ask Joe Dumars how he feels right now. Circumstances will change But OK. That is for Tuesday. From now on, I suspect the Pistons will indeed keep the intensity knob no lower than it was Sunday. I think so. I hope so. And that won’t be enough. They’ll need more jolts to beat the Bulls, and far more should they get to play the Celtics.

So what of Washington? Well. The fact is, it’s not always easy to play a team that is mediocre. It can drag you down. It plays tricks with your intensity. The Red Wings against Toronto showed us that a few weeks ago. And besides, Washington had a few guys who put on a show. Jeff Malone was an incredible sharpshooter until Sunday (just four points) when he plumb ran out of bullets. Or the Bullets ran out of him. One or the other.

Having said that, let me say this: Look out. If there was a word for the Pistons in Round 1 it was E-R-R-A-T-I-C. Chuck Daly has to feel like Monte Hall: Which players lie behind Playoff Door No. 2?

Will it be the Dennis Rodman who did nothing but foul in the first half Sunday? Or the Rodman who didn’t miss a shot in the second half?

Will it be the old Vinnie Johnson who can hit the fallaway jumper or the new one who can’t?

Will it be the Laimbeer and Dumars who rediscovered their crucial games Sunday, or the two who lost them in the games before?

Who knows?

“Did this game help you rediscover the killer instinct?” a TV reporter asked Daly.

“Temporarily,” the coach said, forcing a grin. “I just hope we remember where we found it.” So do the fans. On Sunday, the Pistons returned from the hunt with enough to eat for about, oh, two days.

The big game still lies ahead.

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