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 simply not on the menu in this venue.

A rule of basketball: You can’t set your alarm clock for the final quarter. That’s like waking up at five to nine, like cramming all of European history as you walk to the final exam. By the time the Pistons found some range, some drop on their shots, some movement in this playoff series opener, well, the Celtics had found some, too. “Up to that point, as bad as things were going, we still could have won if we just got rolling,” said a puzzled Isiah Thomas, who found the rims closed to his shots all night long. “But we never got rolling.”

Let’s be clear. We are not talking about very good basketball here. For most of this 104-91 Boston victory it was a bad, clanking, air-ball, poorly refereed game. Both teams. And this was the playoffs.

Having said that, there were still a winner and a loser, and when this war is finally settled, the Pistons may be looking back on Tuesday night as the golden opportunity that got away.

How many shots did they miss? How many passes to the wrong hands? How bad was it?

“I’ll never shoot like that again,” said Thomas, who finished 6-for-24.

“Didn’t get the rolls,” mumbled Adrian Dantley, who finished 7-for-17.

“Too much standing around,” said Laimbeer, who wound up 5- for-12.

Shoot. Miss. Shoot. Miss. 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.

No pop.
‘We have no excuses’

Remember, this was supposed to be a Pistons team that was more ready for the Celtics than the Celtics were for it. A hot team. A rested team. But Thomas was not the Thomas he can be, and Laimbeer was not the Laimbeer he can be and Dantley was not the . . . well, you get the picture. How many missed shots? How much standing around? Who were these guys in the Detroit uniforms?

Well. This is the difference between playing the Atlanta Hawks and playing the Boston Celtics. The Pistons, who shot 35.8 percent in the first half Tuesday night, had 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.

“The Pistons really felt they could take this one,” someone said to Boston coach K.C. Jones.

“Well, this was their best chance to catch us,” he admitted. Of course. The Celtics had just finished a grueling seven-game series with Milwaukee on Sunday. They were walking around like old men. Robert Parish was hurting and Kevin McHale was hurting and Danny Ainge did not even dress. They played bad basketball for most of three quarters Tuesday, but OK. They were the sore ones. Why was the Detroit offense so stiff?

Chuck Daly blamed “overzealousness.” Vinnie Johnson blamed a desire to out-quick the Celtics. Laimbeer simply said: “We have no excuses.”

Whatever. Slowly, gradually, the Celtics rose. They began to hit their shots. Larry Bird, cold all night, still found the open man with the pass. Parish came alive, stuffed in one late basket after another, 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 Charles 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 aren’t 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 missed a chance to catch Boston with its greatness down. True, Detroit has some greatness of its own. It can only hope that it shows up for Game 2 Thursday night — sometime before the fourth quarter.

Yes, this was a weird one, this was bad, this was unusual and will not be repeated, not by teams this good.

But it counts, just the same.

“It was an ugly game,” Thomas said.

“I’ll take this ugly game,” Jones said.

That about says it all.

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