The season begins now. You can forget all those January nights in Denver and Charlotte when you just want to get to the buzzer and get to the plane and get out of town. That is the opening act, the lube job. This is the real thing. Inside the Palace Thursday night, the minutes ticked down and the Pistons were ready. They marched 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. This is the season.

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 back, 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. This is how it begins . . . The big dogs howl

. . . and this is how it ends. Vinnie Johnson gets the playground eye in the fourth quarter and goes nuclear, pushes three straight into the hoop — a leaner, a laner, a 17-footer — and the Pistons straight-arm the Pacers the rest of the way and win, 104-92. Johnson slaps hands with his teammates. That’s one. Before the game he had talked about the difference between the regular season and the playoffs. “I got here late today, and I shouldn’t have, but I kinda like to do that in the playoffs. I like to just get here, walk right in, be focused, get out on the court and start playing.”

He gets there late. Others get there early. Others get there, mentally, as soon as their number is called, like Salley, who came off the bench Thursday and reminded people that there is deep, there is deeper, and then there is Detroit.

“You were Mr. Big tonight,” someone observed after Salley’s 35 minutes, 20 points and 11 rebounds.

Salley said, “I plan to be Mr. Big from now until June 30th.”

This is the way it is with champions at playoff time. They know when the big dogs howl. Sure, you would like to see the same effort all year long. But hey. They won 59 games. Besides, you wouldn’t ask Mozart to play “Jingle Bells” all day. The great part of winning an NBA title is the memory. That is also the curse. You can’t forget what it felt like, and you can’t help noticing how dull the regular season seems by comparison.

This is the familiar season, the fun season. This is what counts. Now when the playoff curtains rise, you see something more on Detroit 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.

Concentration and smarts. A few cynics noted that Detroit had a 19-point lead Thursday night and had to fight in the last quarter to win it — against a weaker opponent. 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 or 19 points turning to five points. 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 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 today 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.” Letting it all hang out

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. They keep rebounding like Thursday, and 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’d 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 to do the moonwalk.

“This is the time of year we have to turn it on,” said Edwards, who led Detroit’s scoring with 21 points. “And we did. We shut them down in the fourth quarter. Our defense did it”

Their defense usually does. Defense. Bench strength. And concentration. The new season has begun. You want one more example? Somewhere during the second half, coach Chuck Daly split his pants. Big hole. He never noticed. As the buzzer sounded, he was still screaming at the refs, underwear showing and everything.

Playoffs.

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