ATLANTA — It was the best of periods, it was the worst of periods. And it is the reason why you cannot dismiss these Detroit Pistons — not until the last breath is gone from their lips. You can criticize them, shake your head at them, wonder about them, get sick over them, lose money on them, lose hair on them, but you cannot dismiss them, no way, simply because of nights like Tuesday, when, in two hours of basketball, they played one quarter like
“Night of the Living Dead” and another like “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

And they won the game.

That must have been one hell of a halftime speech.

“Not really,” said a relieved Chuck Daly, after the Pistons overcame a 17-point first-half deficit and beat Atlanta, 103-91, to grab a 2-1 lead in this first-round playoff series. ?=I went into the locker room and wrote three words on the board. ‘Poise’ because we needed to stay poised. ‘Frantic’ because we were playing too frantic, and, uh . . . and. . . . Ah, I can’t remember the other one. . . .”

Wait a minute. Don’t leave us hanging like that! Poise. Frantic. And . . . what? “Destroy”? “Annihilate”? “Pay Cut” ? It must have been something good, because the Pistons sure turned around in a hurry. That first quarter and that third quarter had as much in common as Tommy Tune and Norman Schwarzkopf.

“What did Chuck write at halftime?” someone asked Bill Laimbeer.

“He wrote ‘Poise,’ ‘Frantic’ and . . . I can’t remember. Some other cliches sports writers use.” It was a tale of two Pistons

Well, Bill. After that first quarter, it wasn’t cliches they were writing. It was adjectives. Does “awful” ring a bell? Here was the kind of performance you wanted to record on tape — then set on fire. The problem for the Pistons was execution; they played as if they had been executed. If this was championship basketball, I’m Nancy Reagan. Here, in an arena that was loaded with empty seats, the defending NBA champs began a game they had to win
— and looked like dog food.

Here was William Bedford falling asleep, letting a pass bounce off his body and out of bounds. Here was James Edwards stepping on the line, turnover. Here was Isiah Thomas throwing the ball right into the hands of a defender. Here was John Salley, missing an open lay-up by throwing it off the backboard and missing a dunk by slamming it off the heel of the rim.

Before the first quarter was done, Detroit trailed by 15 points. If not for Vinnie Johnson’s discovering his old shooting touch in the second period, the Pistons might have been so black and blue, even Ted Turner couldn’t colorize them. By halftime they were down 12 points, and I had my own thoughts as to what Daly might say to them:

“You stink. I’m leaving.”

“Hello? Has anybody seen my team?”

“OK, campers. Are you ready for your nap now?”

Of course, it was none of these, as we know. It was three words: Poise. Frantic. And. . . .

Hey, Joe Dumars, what was the third one?

“I dunno. I can’t read his writing, anyhow.” Take the good with the bad

Well. Whatever. It worked. The third quarter was every bit as magnificent as the first was ugly. The Pistons emerged with the look of a killer and the focus of a marksman. They also had their old starting lineup intact for the first time in at least a month: Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, James Edwards, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman. And they went to work.

Here was Edwards opening with a trademark fadeaway jumper. Here was Dumars making a beautiful bounce pass to Thomas for a breakaway lay-up. Here was Rodman taking a feed deep under the basket and somehow rising from behind the board, twisting his body and rolling the ball in. Here was Thomas, bad wrist and all, driving into traffic, spinning 360 degrees, and finger- rolling two points. The defense tightened like its usual vise, and by the time the horn sounded to end the quarter, the Pistons had held Atlanta to seven baskets, and had turned a 12-point deficit into a five-point cushion.

They never trailed again.

“What did Chuck write at halftime?” someone asked Salley. “What were the three words?”

” ‘Poise,’ ‘Frantic’ and . . . I think it was ‘loose ball.’ “

“No it wasn’t,” Laimbeer yelled. “He wouldn’t write ‘loose ball.’ “

“No? Oh, well. Maybe it was ‘intensity.’ “

Maybe it was “Kill!” Maybe it was “Yuck!” Who knows? The word seems destined to be a mystery, which is pretty symbolic for this team. The Pistons

are not done with their problems. The fact is, they shouldn’t be falling behind so badly to a team such as Atlanta. They are also saddled with another injury to Thomas, this time a hamstring, and it could be bad. Plus Mark Aguirre, who was already grumbling, sat out all but two minutes of the second half Tuesday — and who knows what that will turn into.

All of which means we are probably in for more of this: best of periods, worst of periods. And whichever they do more of will determine the Pistons’ fate. “It would be a lot easier if we just led from the beginning, but what are you gonna do?” Daly said, looking like a man who had been dragged from the back of a car.

I think I know what he wrote on that board. I think he wrote, “I’m getting tired of this.”

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