So that’s it, right? We win the championship?
No way. That wasn’t the second round. Couldn’t be. Too much drama. Too much screaming. Too many hearts stuck in the fans’ throats. What on earth were the Boston Celtics doing back in this game? In overtime? In Game 6 at the Palace? All night long, it seemed the Pistons simply had to play out their role and win this series. They hit their shots. They outrebounded Boston. They opened a huge lead — the crowd was doing the wave, for Pete’s sake! And suddenly, you look up in the fourth quarter, around two minutes left, and here was Larry Bird sinking a free throw to give the Celtics their first lead of the night, 100-99. A lead? The Celtics? Weren’t they just losing by 17 points?
Suddenly, this whole crazy series was up for grabs, the guys from Boston could (gulp) win, and their Garden was singing like an evil temptress from far away. “Come back to me. Come back to me. Game 7. I’ll take care of you . . .
Second round? No way. This was somebody’s Final. Wasn’t your skin all goose bumpy when Joe Dumars, after a brilliant game, missed two free throws that could have put the game away in the final seconds of regulation? Didn’t your heart sink when Reggie Lewis rebounded his own missed shot and followed with a soft jumper to tie the game? Didn’t you want to scream when Isiah Thomas lost control of the ball and suddenly, the announcer was croaking, “WE WILL HAVE . . . OVERTIME!”?
Well. If you weren’t in cardiac arrest by that point, you surely were in the minutes that followed. For here was a story that only could have been thought up by some Hollywood screenwriter. Isiah, the captain, suddenly discovering his old self, ignoring the bad ankle, ignoring the bad wrist, ignoring the bad hamstring, taking over the game in overtime as if discovering intruders in his house, hitting a huge three-point shot, a 15-foot jumper, another jumper — and then, perhaps the final turnaround play, harassing Boston’s Dee Brown with hand- poking defense, until Brown, just a kid, traveled with the ball and turned it over. The crowd roared. Thomas made a fist.
Done with it.
“I just didn’t want to lose,” Thomas said after this heart-stomping win, a 117-113 final that pushes Detroit into the Eastern Conference finals against Chicago. “I just did not want to lose. Boston is a nice place. A great place. But damn. I just didn’t want to go back there again this season.”
He sighed. So did the reporters.
Second round? This is getting ridiculous. Next thing you know the Pistons will be showing up for games with lead weights on their ankles. “Oh, well,” they’ll say. “You know, we have to make it hard for ourselves.”
And yet, isn’t it remarkable? They keep going to the well, and going to the well, and they come up with something, even if it’s just a few drops. Don’t ask me to explain how they blew a 17-point lead. It didn’t seem like they were playing that badly. But what they did in overtime — really, what Thomas did in overtime — was a flat-out remarkable pressure performance, which means it was typical of this team.
Thomas, after all, was in a relief role. He came off the bench mostly to spell Dumars and Vinnie Johnson. And yet, in the magic moment, there he was again, no bandages, no pain, just Isiah and the basket. “This was the way this series was supposed to end,” John Salley said. “The captain taking over. He said ‘I’m the man. I want the ball.’ “
He got it. And he made a shot that will rank up there with the red ink shots in the history of the Palace. With the Pistons trailing in overtime, time clicking down on the shot clock, he found himself isolated outside the three- point line. Mike Abdenour, the Pistons’ trainer, was screaming, “GO TO IT! GO TO IT!” the desperation cry that means shoot, we’re out of time. Thomas squared up and fired.
The ball banked in.
“Sometimes God is just on your side,” said Thomas, who finished with 17 points. “It wasn’t skill on that one. It was just luck.”
Luck or fate. Don’t the Pistons seemed destined to win this way? Or lose this way? Grabbing you by your heartstrings and yanking you all along. Thomas wasn’t the only goose-bumper on this night. In fact, for most of the game, until that fourth quarter, this looked like a highlight film for next year’s reel. Here was Vinnie Johnson following a missed shot, grabbing the rebound in mid-air and lofting it back in on soft roll. Here was Dennis Rodman not only grabbing every rebound in sight, but launching an alley-oop pass to John Salley, who slammed it home. And here was Dumars, incredible from opening tap, taking a pass on a fast break and not even bothering with a lay-up, canning a jumper, then diving past the entire Celtic team, off the glass, lay-up, again, lay-up, again, lay-up, then out side, inside, outside. Make no mistake. His 32 points were what kept the Pistons far enough ahead to withstand the Boston rally. After the game, he lumbered out with ice bags on his knees.
“Nothing easy,” he said.
Second round? And that’s really the most unbelievable part, isn’t it? That, after a game like this, the Pistons leave today for Chicago. And a game Sunday. And if you ask me, the Bulls will be tougher than the Celtics.
Shouldn’t they get a break? Shouldn’t they get a reward for winning this one — a vacation, a few days on the beach? Maybe they should. But they won’t. This is the way the Pistons will defend their crown this year, for better or for worse. It will be gut wrenching, it will be desperate, even the safest of leads will not be safe at all.
Ah well. What do you expect from a Boston-Detroit series? Something about the Celtics — even without Robert Parish and with Larry Bird an aching shadow of himself. They simply won’t die easily. They’re like a cockroach in your kitchen. You step on it. It stops moving. You look the other way, it runs under the wall.
But they’re gone now. And the next face in the Pistons’ nightmare will have his head shaved and his tongue hanging out, and Lord knows how they can make it any harder on themselves. But they will.
People will talk. Some will say the Pistons are running on fumes, that the Bulls are so hungry, they’re ready to eat Roundball One. Others will say experience always pays off. That you are not a champion until you slay the enemy, and the Bulls have never done that to Detroit. People will talk. They always talk.
And the Pistons? They will not be deterred, they will not be distracted. They will continue their march through this three-peat dream the way Bill Laimbeer said he gets through the mile run that starts training camp in October: “By putting one foot in front of the other and counting one two, one two, until somebody tells you its over.”
One down. Two down.
Now comes three.
I will make a prediction: I predict it will be really and truly difficult series.
Wanna bet me?