CHAMPS EVEN THE SCOREOH, ISIAH! THE CAPTAIN FLASHES HIS OLD MAGIC

For a few minutes Sunday night, he was his old self, firing those high-arching jump shots that threaten to bring down rain before they swish through the net. Two points. Another two points. Then he drove deep into the Atlanta defense and did the between-the-legs thing, the trademark left-right-left-right dribble — sort of like the old Ali shuffle — followed by a one-handed whip pass across the court. Beautiful. Then he led a fast break. Then he stole the ball. Then he shot again. Two points. And before you knew it, quietly, Isiah Thomas had 11 points in half-a-quarter, and he sat down. The night had gone from a game to a rout.

You cover this team for a long time, you can get a little frustrated with Thomas. The years have changed his overly friendly manner, at least with reporters, so that sometimes now he’ll go aloof on you, make you feel uncomfortable even saying hello, and other times, he explodes into that deep, hearty laugh, and everything’s OK. So be it. That’s his business. But even a total stranger knows this: When it comes to basketball, Thomas is still the big stick in this pile, still the grease that moves the Pistons’ wheel. Without him, this is a very good team. With him, they can be cocky.

Wrist injury still the team’s burden And that, more than anything else, may be what carries the Pistons through these playoffs and ultimately to the lip of their dream, a third NBA championship. Thomas did not lead the team in scoring Sunday night. He did not even lead the guards (Joe Dumars finished with 28, Isiah 15). Yet he did damage when it counted with seeing-eye passes and timely shooting, and, most notably, a look of confidence. And whenever he looks confident out there, it seems to spread. “Any one of us can get hot, and it sparks the team,” Dumars said after the 101-88 victory that knotted this first-round playoff series at 1-1. “But as the leader, when Isiah gets hot, it spreads around, other guys wind up with baskets, dunks, he makes those passes, and everyone is involved.”

So here was the captain doing just that, in the second quarter, zipping a pass to John Salley, wide-open underneath the hoop. Slam dunk! And later, a laser pass inside to a streaking Bill Laimbeer (well, maybe not streaking). Lay-up! Two points.

And then, that third quarter, four quick shots, four quick baskets, a couple free throws, 11 points. No, it wasn’t the Finals in 1988, against the Los Angeles Lakers, when Thomas nearly ripped the nets off the rim, 25 points in one quarter. And no, it wasn’t last year, against Portland, when he sank all those three-pointers, so effortlessly it made everyone want to rush out and buy a home gymnasium.

It wasn’t that. But it was a start. This injury thing is a slow process. You come back an inch at a time. Thomas wore a new black wrap on his wrist Sunday, covering a nylon pad, the latest in a series of gizmos to try to get him comfortable with a body part that should be home, in bed, getting lots of rest, but instead is out here in the playoffs, because that’s where the rest of the body wants to be. “Every night is still an adventure,” Thomas admitted, holding the wrist in the locker room after the game. “I never know how it’s gonna be, or how it’s gonna swell the next day.

“That’s why I say, the longer I keep playing, the better it will be.”

He was asked about that third quarter, the 11 quick points. Was it that same feeling, like he could take over a whole quarter if he had to?

“I’d be lying if I said it was. I’m not back to that point yet. I hope I get back there. Right now, this was just something to build on.” If only they could rehearse more often

Which is OK. That’s what this whole first round is really all about. Something to build on. The Pistons, don’t forget, haven’t played as a totally healthy unit since there was snow on the ground. They must use these playoffs the way a reuniting band might use rehearsals. Trouble is, while they’re rehearsing, the games count.

“I knew the first round would be tough for us,” said Dumars, who rebounded beautifully from a bad game Friday night, sinking 10 of 17 shots and leading the scoring. “We need time. But it’s such a quick series. If I knew we were going to win, I might actually prefer a four- or even five-game series because that gives us a chance to work together longer to get some of our edge back.”

“But,” he added quickly, “only if I knew we were gonna win.”

Nobody gets that guarantee. Still, Sunday was a nice splash of what used to be, with the guards running the scoring show (52 points for Thomas, Dumars and Vinnie Johnson), the big men getting the rebounds (Dennis Rodman with 16 by himself) and everybody playing defense, particularly on Dominique Wilkins, who is the biggest assassin on this Atlanta squad. “That’s the way we’re supposed to win basketball games,” Salley barked afterwards.

Which doesn’t mean all is well. The Pistons still must win two of the next three, and the series now shifts to unfriendly Atlanta. Still, there were nice signs Sunday night: Johnson canning jumpers from eight feet, Salley blocking shots in midair. And the captain, for a few minutes, giving a dash of the old magic. Personally, I always take it as a good sign when Thomas does that between-the-legs, lightning dribble.

“To be honest with you,” he said, grinning, “I wasn’t even aware I did that tonight.”

Even better.

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