BOSTON — There were three minutes left in what used to be a playoff series when Chuck Daly, watching his Pistons streak and soar and rise to the occasion, leaned back in his chair, shook a fist at Celtic mystique, and screamed the magic words: “LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!”
Right. No point in hanging around when there are bigger fish to fry. So Vinnie Johnson broke away and dished to Dennis Rodman, soaaaaarrrring dunk!
And John Salley launched himself in the face of Robert Parish. Look, Chief. Now I got the ball, now I don’t. Slam. Oooh, oooh.
Here a basket. There a steal. And by the time this playoff game ended, Celtic Green had evaporated to Celtic yellow the color you see in the Garden when the seats are all empty.
“They taught us well,” said Joe Dumars, offering a classy tribute to the vanquished opponents, after the Pistons’ 100-85 win Tuesday night gave Detroit a sweep of Boston in the first round of these NBA playoffs. “In years past, we really admired the way they took care of business. It was just our turn to do it this year.”
Take care of business? There seems to be less and less of it to deal with at least as far as opposing box scores. The Pistons’ game is defense, and once again they held the Celtics under 100 points the seventh time in a row
limiting them to just 12 in the final quarter.
Here was Salley rising to block anything that tried to kiss the rim, and Rodman skying for rebounds, and James Edwards haunting Parish. Close it down? When the minutes counted, the Pistons’ defense did the tighten-up better than Archie Bell and The Drells.
Throw that in with Johnson’s 25 points from all over the parquet and what you have, folks, is one, two, three, sweep.
“Defense,” said Bill Laimbeer afterward, “is our forte.”
That’s French, isn’t it?
It’s been a loooong season,” said a weary Celtic named Kevin McHale as he packed for the summer. It showed on Tuesday. Was this really the Pistons-Celtics? In the playoffs? Just one game in the storied Garden and it’s over? Last year and the year before, the showdown was for the conference championship, and you could not hear yourself think in this building, the air was choked with stale cigars and evil memories. Leprechauns. Bad referees. Something always happened here. During time-outs, Daly would scream himself hoarse trying to be heard by players just three feet away.
This time? He could whisper. There was no communication difficulty. No crowd to rise above. The Boston faithful stirred a few times Tuesday night, but they mostly knew that these were not the Celtics of old, and the sooner the Pistons administered the mercy-killing, the better for everybody.
“Did you in any way miss the usual intensity?” someone asked Dumars as he dressed.
He smiled. “It wasn’t the same,” he admitted. “But I think we’ve earned the right for it not to be the same. We’re a different team.”
Indeed, they are now as deep as the federal deficit. Isiah Thomas, the All-Star guard hobbled by an injured shoulder did not play well Tuesday and was barely missed. Johnson and Dumars and Rodman and Salley more than made up.
But then, these are not the old Celtics. For the record, they closed out their worst playoff finish in more than three decades with the following roster on the floor: Mark Acres, Kelvin Upshaw, Ed Pinckney, Otis Birdsong and Joe Kleine. No need to adjust your television set. It’s the truth.
Not the same rivalry. It can’t be, really. Not without Larry Bird, leering and leaping and hovering like a crane near every drama; he sat on the bench in street clothes Tuesday. And not without Danny Ainge, whose pout made his shot that much more irritating; he’s somewhere in Sacramento now. And not without Dennis Johnson, who was so hobbled by an injured ankle and age that he seems to be an imitation of his old self. After the game, he lingered for a long time in the Garden hallways, signing autographs, hanging around. Summer? Could it be summer for the Celtics already?
Not the same. And who cares? Certainly not anyone in a Piston uniform. They are happy with a sweep, they will take a sweep, and you better not complain about a sweep. “I love the town of Boston,” said Daly, “and I love the restaurants. But I am very happy to be leaving, thank you.”
And now? A few days’ rest, and the next opponent, the winner of the Atlanta-Milwaukee series. The Piston have a long way to go yet in these playoffs, but they are so far three games in, and three wins pocketed.
“We’ve got business to do,” Salley told reporters in the locker room afterward. “We can’t be joking around too much.”
“Is that why you’re controlling your emotions so well?” someone asked, noting his smile.
“Yeah,” Salley said, “you won’t see my bottom teeth until we win the whole thing!”
So be it. For now, the Piston have finished the Celtics, quicker than anyone would have thought a year ago at this time. And let’s be honest here. Had the Celtics not drawn Charlotte and home court in the final game of the season, they probably would have missed the playoffs altogether. Coming to the Garden this time was like visiting a haunted house in the middle of the day. No spooks, so specters, no goblins or ghouls.
Nothing to worry about.
Outta here. Historians will note that the Piston trilogy is now compete. Two years ago, they were robbed by Boston in a Game 7 nightmare. Last year they broke the hex with a Game 6 win in Detroit. And this year, they came to Boston and slew the monster on the very first try. Sweep. See ya later.
You almost feel sorry for the Celti–