BOSTON — As the fourth quarter was about to begin Tuesday night, Pistons center Bill Laimbeer leaned into his team’s huddle, sweat dripping from his chin, and yelled, “We can still win this thing! Come on! Come on!”
You can understand his reminder. Up to that point, the Pistons had played as if victory was not on the menu in this venue.
A rule of basketball: You can’t set your alarm clock for the fourth quarter. That’s like waking up at five to nine, like cramming all of European history into the walk to the final. By the time the Pistons found some range, some drop on their shots, some movement, the Celtics had found some, too.
No, we were not talking about very good basketball here. For most of this series-opening, 104-91 Boston victory it was bad, clanking, air-ball, mistimed, poorly refereed basketball. And this was the playoffs.
Having said that, there were still a winner and a loser, and when this war is finally settled, Detroit may be looking back on Tuesday night as the golden opportunity that got away.
How many shots did they miss? How many passes landed in the wrong hands? Who was good? Nobody was good. It was as if a big champagne bottle was imported from Detroit, all shook up, and then at game time the cork just kind of fell out.
This was supposed to be a Detroit team that was more ready for the Celtics than the Celtics were for it. A hot team. A rested team. But Isiah Thomas was not the Isiah Thomas he can be, and Laimbeer was not the Laimbeer he can be and Adrian Dantley was not the Adrian Dantley he can be, and forget it. You get the picture. Who played well? Nobody played well. How many missed shots? How many bad passes?
Who were these guys in the Detroit uniforms? Who played well? Nobody
Well. This is the difference between playing the Atlanta Hawks and playing the Boston Celtics. The Pistons had a few similar bad first halves against Atlanta and still won. That’s because Atlanta matched their ineptitude, and ultimately outdid it.
You can’t expect that from Boston.
Here was a night the clouds were low, a fog, a mist, a night when the stars would not come out, at least not until they absolutely had to.
The Celtics, however, had an excuse. They had just finished a grueling seven-game series with Milwaukee on Sunday. They were walking around like old men. Kevin McHale was hurting, and Robert Parish was hurting and Danny Ainge didn’t even dress. It was the Celtics who came into this series sore. But for the first 30 minutes it was the Detroit offense that was stiff.
The Pistons were enjoying the advantage of a cold Larry Bird and a quiet McHale, and yet when they had the ball, they stood around, Dantley would get it and stare down Bird, then pass, and Thomas would get it and stare down Jerry Sichting, then pass. When the Detroit shots went up they were off, some were air balls — Thomas missed 11 of 12 — and by the time the half had ended, the score was a meager 44-40, Celtics, and neither team wanted any highlight film.
The pattern continued into the third period. How many missed shots? How many bad passes? Who played well? Nobody played well.
And then, slowly, gradually, the Celtics rose. They seemed to find their game in the third quarter. Their passes clicked. Their shots dropped. Parish came alive, stuffed in one basket after the other, and the Boston team seemed to say, “Hey, even hurt we can take these guys.”
And on this night, they did. Good guys’ win in end
Remember how the stage was set here. This is a supposedly “injured” Boston team that is reeling like Bronson in the finale of one of those vigilante films, bleeding and gasping and knocking off one bad guy only to turn and find another jumping from the ceiling. The Pistons are the new enemy, the new knife- wielder, and yet there was a feeling here, as there always is in hero stories, that the good guys are never really that hurt, that they will always win in the end. In Boston, the good guys wear green.
So they came alive when they had to, and the Pistons may have missed a chance to catch Boston with its greatness down.
Then again, Detroit has some greatness of its own. Chuck Daly knows that. The Pistons themselves know it. They can only hope it shows up in Game 2 Thursday night. Sometime before the fourth quarter.