The season begins now. You can forget all those January nights in Denver when you just want to get to the buzzer and get to the plane and get out of town. Inside the Palace Thursday night, the minutes ticked down and the Pistons marched purposefully through the tunnel, heads up, eyes glazed, like rock stars sucking in the last breath before they leap onstage.
“Everything changes today,” Joe Dumars had said an hour earlier, in the locker room. “There are big games during the season, sure, when the race gets tight or it’s a big opponent. But this is different. The playoffs are what you wait for. These really count. You’re driving in your car today and it’s like,
‘OK. Now we start.’ “
Now we start. After the 82 prelims. After all those warm-up acts. After all the forgotten nights when it’s snowing and the malls are open and football is on the tube. Now we start.
And this is what it looks like: Indiana’s Vern Fleming goes in for what should be an easy lay-up and suddenly James Edwards rises like a crane, he’s a monster of arms, and Fleming throws it away; Dumars ducks his head and drives into Reggie Miller like a small bull, draws the whistle, then fades backwards, never losing his view, and launches a shot that drops and counts, three-point play; Dennis Rodman becomes a suitcase around Chuck Person, the best scorer on the Pacers, and Person gets three shots in the first 15 minutes.
So it begins.
And this is how it ends. Vinnie Johnson gets the playground look in the fourth quarter and pushes three straight into the hoop, a leaner, a laner, a 17-footer; Isiah Thomas grabs a long rebound in mid-air and — before his feet kiss the ground — whips it length of the court to Rodman, who banks it home; John Salley comes to life and scores 20, grabbing his own rebounds and popping them in, playing one of his best games all season.
Pistons win, 104-92. This is the way it is with champions at playoff time. They know when the big dogs howl. The music plays and you can see it on their faces, the focus, the heat, the sweat dripping from their chins before the game is 10 minutes old. If the Pistons win the title come June, this will be the reason. It’s called concentration. It brings you glory.
“We needed a hard game, and we got it,” Chuck Daly said. “We just have to keep protecting it at home. We better have intensity at playoff time, or we’ll never win it.”
Intensity? They’ll have it. Sure, some cynics will say Detroit had a 19-point lead and had to fight in the last quarter to win it — against a weaker opponent such as the Pacers. These people know nothing about pro sports.
Basketball teaches you how to dance and fly; the NBA teaches you patience. If you’re smart, you realize the real game goes from October to June and you don’t worry about every little sputter or choke, just like you don’t worry about every lead change. You just worry about the big things, your head, your focus. And of course, victory. The Pistons won 25 of 26 games during one magnificent stretch of this season, and yet, in the closing weeks, they let up a bit and people immediately began to wonder: “Are they losing their edge?”
I asked Dumars about this, and he laughed. “Nobody goes like this the whole time,” he said, pushing his hand up like a rocket. “Just like nobody sprints for a mile.”
Right. Pacing. That is what the NBA is all about. The season requires it. And know this: The playoffs are a season to themselves. There will be ups and downs over the next six weeks. At times the Pistons will look vulnerable, maybe beatable. Few people remember that during last year’s glory run, the series against Chicago was shaky, and critics wondered aloud if the Pistons would even survive the Bulls.
Two weeks later, they were being sprayed with champagne.
“It’s like I tell people,” Salley said. “If we won every game, you wouldn’t come out to watch.”
So that’s one win in the new season. There will be more. Indiana is a nice little team, but you can forget them against Detroit. If they keep rebounding like Thursday, it’s three games and out. What was the edge? Detroit 46, Pacers 32? Either you get more than one shot against the Pistons defense or you better make all your first shots. The Pacers did neither. At times, they looked good. At times, they looked as out of sync as a British Prime Minister trying the moonwalk.
“This is the time of year we have to turn it on,” said Edwards, who led the Detroit scoring with 21 points. “And we did. We shut them down in the fourth quarter. Our defense did it.”
Defense. It is something that Detroit has a lock on. Other teams will get hot, they will shoot well, but they will not be able to get defensive the way the Pistons can. If anything, that will carry them to the finals.
That and concentration. You want one more example? Somewhere during the second half, Daly split his pants. Big hole. He never noticed. As the buzzer sounded he was still screaming at the refs, underwear showing and everything.