BOSTON — Danny Ainge threw up a shot, the Pistons scrambled madly for the rebound, and it flew over their heads, back into the Celtics’ hands. And another shot went up, this time by Larry Bird, and the Pistons scrambled, and again it caromed over their heads and back to the Celtics. Surely some devil was at work now. And it happened again, Kevin McHale missed, rebound Boston, and again, Robert Parish missed, rebound Boston, and again, another shot, another rebound, and by now the sold-out Boston Garden was laughing, taunting, and the basketball was becoming the very spirit of the Celtics, unexplainable, unreasonable, undeniable. And finally it was swung into the hands of Ainge again, standing out in never-never land, three- point soil, and with just over three minutes left in somebody’s season, up it went and down it came, straight through the hoop. They should have checked that ball afterward. There was blood all over it.
Life goes on. The Pistons do not. There is no way they deserved to lose this thing, this 117-114 decision in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference final. No way except from a scoreboard point of view. And that is all that counts. So when the final buzzer sounded it was the Celtics leaping and laughing and celebrating in each other’s arms. And the Pistons were staring at the parquet floor that had been their burial ground.
“That’s it?” they seemed to say.
What was going through your mind every time they got the ball back?” someone later asked Dennis Rodman of that painful sequence, which turned a 99-99 deadlock into 102-99, Celtics, a lead for good, and which seemed to suck the destiny out of the most courageous game these Pistons have ever played.
“It was like, we got it — no, we don’t,” he answered, looking at his feet. “We got it — no, they got it. Finally it felt like, ‘God, what do we have to do to win here?’ “
Isn’t that the way every Pistons fan feels this morning? What do they have to do? Please, God, answer? This will be recorded as the 18th straight defeat for Detroit in this rickety building, the end of the year, the killer in a remarkable season. Yet the Pistons, the losers, were more courageous, more determined, more inspired, it seemed, than the team that will now advance to the NBA final.
Here was guts in every human form. Here was Isiah Thomas, with four fouls early in the second half, begging coach Chuck Daly, “Lemme stay, Chuck! . . . I won’t get another! . . . Please! . . . ” Here was John Salley, half-blinded by an elbow in the eye, going to the hoop for a slam and drawing a foul. Here were Vinnie Johnson and Adrian Dantley diving for a loose ball and banging heads, and Dantley, the team’s most reliable solo threat, being wheeled out on a stretcher, semiconscious, his eyes closed, spending the rest of this game in an ambulance and a hospital bed.
Could anything have been tougher? Dantley gone? Players in foul trouble? A crowd that wanted everyone from Detroit dead? As if playing in this broiling execution box against a team that never seems to lose the big ones wasn’t enough? Did you ever want a game more than this?” the Pistons were asked, one by one, in their cramped locker room afterward.
“Never,” said Thomas softly.
“Never,” said Bill Laimbeer.
“I’ve never played in anything like this,” sighed Joe Dumars, the quietest Piston, who seemed the most dejected of all. He had played brilliantly, scored 35 points, kept his team in this war with Isiah on the bench. He was symbolic of a group that had found strength from unusual places all series. Now he sat, hands on his knees, his lips pursed tightly.
“Tired . . . dejected . . . hurt,” he said when asked what he was feeling.
“It just hurts so much to lose like this. I really felt we played well enough to win.”
And they did. Which may be what hurts the most. It was difficult for anyone with compassion to watch the final three minutes — the Pistons staying close, playing foul-and-pray, rebound-and-pray — and not feel something. How sad for Daly, who turns 57 this summer, and must wonder whether he’ll ever get this close again. How sad for Thomas, who has been in Detroit for so long, and for Laimbeer, who endured more Boston hatred than one man should ever have to, and for Johnson, who had his game knocked out of him because he dived for a ball, and for Dantley, who never even knew what happened in the biggest afternoon of his career. When he awoke in his hospital bed, when they told him the score, what could his reaction have been?
That’s it? That’s it.
No fair, it seems, that now and forever the picture of Bird stealing that pass in Game 5 will haunt the memory of this series, it will always be there, like a dull ache, like a scar. And however bad the fan feels, the players involved — Thomas, Laimbeer, Dumars — feel worse. They may say nothing. They may shrug it off. You never shrug it off.
And this hurts more: If you flipped this series around, if the Pistons had won Saturday, the Celtics would have little to complain about. They had already been soundly beaten three times, virtually beaten in Game 5, and held close in Games 1 and 2. The Pistons’ victories, conversely, were sure, unarguable. Yet they will be the ones cursed to wonder of how such talent and desire did not translate into four wins.
“Did the best team win this series?” Thomas was asked.
“No, because I felt we were the best team.”
“Did the best team win this series?” Laimbeer was asked.
“I’d say the team with the home-court advantage won,” he grumbled.
From other teams, one might consider this sour grapes. And yet, well, don’t you feel that way, too? With their backs to the wall, the Pistons had the intensity of a surgeon holding a human heart. They could take every punch the Celtics threw. They just couldn’t take all of them.
This place. This place. Playing the Celtics here is a choke- lock. You can wiggle, but you rarely get free. Bird was brilliant (37 points) and McHale was
gutsy and Ainge did so much damage at the worst moments. With 25 seconds left, there was still a Detroit prayer, still a razor of hope, and Ainge once again uncorked and — up, down. Over. The Garden crowd went wild, thumping, jeering, going hoarse with exultation.
Seconds later, they had done it again, this green team that never dies. And the Pistons dragged themselves to their tiny visitors’ quarters, and took their uniforms off for good.
That’s it? That’s it. The summer goes on. The Pistons do not. This hurts terribly in Detroit, because the city desperately fell in love with basketball during these last two weeks, or rather, fell in love again, a rekindled affair. Isiah’s pops, Dantley’s spins, Laimbeer’s flicked-wrist jumpers — they had all become part of the household recently, like knick-knacks collected and put on the shelf. And suddenly you wake up this morning, and they are behind glass.
Hadn’t the Pistons become the sentimental favorites of basketball fans across the country? With each passing game, each slice of clamped-jaw determination, the Detroit bandwagon was more and more full. In Portland and Milwaukee and Boise and Squaw Valley and Charlotte and New Orleans and Brooklyn? Weren’t they rooting for blue?
But such desire reaches only the out-of-bounds line. On the floor, it’s the players, and, on this day, the Celtics were just too much the Celtics. Complain not about Dantley, for Boston had more than its share of injuries and absent players, too. What can you do? Salute the Celtics’ pride, their obstinacy, even their arrogance, for if you admire victory, then you will understand these are all qualities that ensure it. They just belong, in the Pistons’ fans case, to the wrong people.
It seems too cruel to say the Pistons “lost” this series. It sounds better to say they finished second, in a photo at the tape, and depending on the angle, you could maybe, possibly, say that. . . .
Never mind. In ends here, in a steamy Boston Garden on a muggy Saturday afternoon. You look at the court, where everything came crashing down, now empty and quiet, and the finality of it comes to you like the end of summer, like the last guest leaving a party, like a rebound flying helplessly over your head and into the hands of your laughing opponent.
That’s it? That’s it. CUTLINE Celtics reserve center Bill Walton and assistant coach Chris Ford, a former Piston, celebrate Boston’s 117-114 victory. Celtics forward Larry Bird finds a way around Joe Dumars and Adrian Dantley.