They are like a fading movie star now, catching only occasional glimpses in the mirror when the light is kind and the makeup is good and they look like their old selves. They squeeze those moments, not because they are so hard to find, but because when the memories come, they feel young and fresh and like maybe, maybe, they can do it all again.
The Pistons got one more moment like that Friday night. Never mind that they needed to pry it loose the way a dentist pries loose a wisdom tooth. Never mind that they couldn’t score a basket in the final four minutes. Never mind that it came down to a deliberately missed free throw and painfully close in-bounds passes and a screamfest with the refs as passionate as anything the old Bad Boys used to pull.
Never mind all that. The old Pistons used to win games by, in coach Chuck Daly’s words, “hanging around, hanging around, and stealing it at the finish.” That might be the only way they can win a playoff series now. Even a first-round one.
But so be it. When that buzzer sounded Friday night and the Pistons had 86 points and the belligerent New York Knicks had 82, the Palace sighed like an old king. The team would not die here. They would not go early.
“Was this about pride?” someone asked Joe Dumars, after he scored 23 points — including, thank you, two crucial, last- minute free throws — to help tie this best-of-five series at two games apiece.
“Yeah, pride is a good word,” he said, crossing his arms.” Pride, and competitiveness. Nobody wants to have their season come to an end.”
How strange it seems to go through this much agony in the opening round of the playoffs. Once, the Pistons virtually parted the Red Sea to race to the finals. Now, here they were, in the feeble first-round waters, trying desperately to stay afloat — against the New York Knicks, a nice team that nobody, even the most delirious New Yorker, will confuse with a world-beater. But they don’t have to beat the world. They have to beat only the Pistons.
That is do-able these days.
But not this night. Off to a slow start
Oh, it was a sweat, all right. The Pistons began the game as if playing in a fish tank. Everything was slow, labored, lacking punch. With empty seats now dotting the Palace background, the home team fell behind by four, by six, by seven points. The ball was rolling off the rim. The defense was late. The crowd was quiet.
Then, in the second quarter, something clicked, the cobwebs seemed to clear, and for one delicious stretch they were actually smiling on the Pistons’ bench and running on the Pistons’ floor. Running? Yes. Here was Dumars racing on a fast break, laying it in, coming up court and hiking the ball between his legs to Isiah Thomas for a three-pointer. Hiking the ball?
Here was Mark Aguirre coming to life, splitting defenders, drawing fouls. Here was Orlando Woolridge swooping in, fighting for rebounds. Here was Thomas, making a gorgeous no-look pass to Dennis Rodman, who dropped it in. The Pistons actually scored 30 points in that second quarter. Thirty points? That’s a half these days!
Wait. Let’s go back to Rodman. Thank goodness for his wake- up call. Although he began the game in the disturbing funk he has suffered during this series, for some reason, he broke loose. He was flying through the air, following the rebounds, pulling them down, raising his fists to ignite the crowd. He finished with 12 points and 17 boards, and a seemingly renewed attitude.
“It was like everything out there counted tonight, every movement, every shot, every rebound,” Rodman said, wide-eyed.
Hey, Dennis. It has been that way all along.
Life empty without finals
Before the game, John Salley was asked how he would feel if this morning he was done with basketball for the season. “Terrible, awful, the worst,” he said. “I never forget what Magic (Johnson) told us the year we won our second championship and the Lakers were eliminated in the first round. He said, ‘I never want to have that feeling again.’
“He said he was so used to being in the finals he came to see us play just to get a little of that feeling.
“He told me, ‘Without the championships, I didn’t know how to act.’ “
Such is the affliction of the Pistons in their post-title years. As long as they knew where they would be in early June — the NBA Finals — what happened along the way was mere intrigue, one of many paths the maze could take. But now the maze itself is the problem, and trying to find the fire to win a first round when you don’t know whether you can survive the second is a little bit like trying to fit into your old prom dress. The results can be depressing.
But, hey, you hang around, you hang around, you hit a couple of clutch free throws, you tighten your defense — and suddenly, you’re going to the deciding game. “I like our chances on Sunday,” Dumars said. “You know everyone around you is going to lay it out, and you’re going to lay it out, too.”
So maybe they don’t look they way they used to. Maybe they need the makeup and the lighting and a little dash of pixie dust.
The philosophy remains the same: Dig deep. Test the well. There might be nothing left come Sunday in New York, but for this hometown Friday night, there was one glass of the old passion still there for the tasting. It was enough.