They had the mean look again, the look you do not want to cross. Sweat down their cheeks, sweat down their arms, sweat dripping off the ends of their chins. No smiles. No give. The mean look.

Ooooh.

“Backs to the wall,” the Pistons seemed to say, reciting their playoff battle cry, as they grunted and pushed and soaked their way to a 111-86 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, tying this NBA final at 2-2. “Backs to the wall. You know what that means?”

It means this: Isiah Thomas, hobbled with a bad back, taking a charge, wincing, getting up, playing on; John Salley, beaten to the hoop by Mychal Thompson, soaring to slam Thompson’s shot against the backboard; Adrian Dantley, over and over, going to the hoop as if his paycheck was hanging in the cords.

“That’s the amazing thing about this team,” Dantley, who scored 27 points, said in the locker room afterwards. “We lose, we get all sad, everybody has these sad faces, and then we come out and play our game. Every time.”

Backs to the wall.

Or should we say floor? Did you catch that moment? Thomas and Rickey Mahorn, both in lower back agony — The Bruised Brothers — lying side-by-side on their stomachs in front of the Pistons bench. Two of the starting five? Horizontal? Hey. Who knows? Pretty soon everybody will be doing it.

“I’m running out of room,” coach Chuck Daly said with a wry smile afterwards. “I’ve got no place to walk any more.”

That’s OK. If it helps the Pistons play the way they did Tuesday, the whole team can bring sleeping bags.

Ooooh.

What is it with these Pistons? Every time the experts are ready to bury them, they come back as if wearing bulletproof vests. In Sunday’s Game 3, they were lethargic, out-of-sync, they seemed overwhelmed by their first home game in the championships. “It was embarrassing,” Vinnie Johnson admitted.

But if Sunday was a carnival atmosphere, Tuesday was a summer league in a local gym. All sweat. All business. Play hurt. Play hot. Just play.

So there was Thomas, injured in a Game 3 fall. He could barely move earlier in the day (“His wife is 10 months pregnant,” joked Daly, “and when she dropped him off, I couldn’t tell who was who.”) He was limping, straining, but he was out there Tuesday, running the club. With seconds left in the third quarter, he popped out to the three-point corner and fired away.

Swish!

“I kept whispering to him all night ‘You never felt better, you never felt better,’ ” said Salley. “And he’d nod and say, ‘Right, you’re right, you’re right.’ “

What else could they do? Everyone knew the script here. The Pistons had made the opening gambit in this series, beating LA in the Forum. And since then, their stock had plummeted. A close loss on the coast was followed by an embarrassing loss at home, and now, in Game 4, another loss would be devastating. You could book the weekend barbecue.

So they came out focused. They came out with the mean look. There was no concentration problem this time. The only difficulty Daly had was holding back all the bench guys who wanted to get in. The Pistons may have been overwhelmed by the speedy Lakers Sunday, but they wanted them for dinner on Tuesday. Not as guests.

As the main course.

“We should have done this Sunday,” said Dennis Rodman. For here, on a hot, sticky night in a hot, sticky Silverdome, was a reversal of the Game 3 debacle. This time it was the Pistons coming out after halftime of a close game and putting the thing away. They shut down the Lakers’ famous break, they got Magic Johnson in foul trouble, they never let up on defense.

And they made their shots. That always helps. Instead of the clanging jumpers that let them down in Game 3, the Pistons took it inside, James Edwards with slam dunks and Dantley with drives to the hoop.

“We didn’t bump them in the previous game,” said Edwards, who rediscovered his playoff magic with 14 points. “But tonight, Mahorn started bumping them, then AD, then everybody was bumping them. They don’t like that, and it kind of threw off their game.”

He lifted the corners of his Fu Manchu mustache.

The mean look.

So now, it’s Game 5 — series tied, 2-2 — and no doubt we’ll be singing the familiar “have to win this one” chorus once again.

But all playoffs long the Pistons have bounced off the ropes, ducked the knockout punch, and come back swinging. “The hard way,” Bill Laimbeer has taken to calling it, and if the Pistons ultimately win this wacky series, they should have that phrase engraved under the trophy.

“Can you tell when you’re going to have one of these games?” someone asked Salley. “Can you feel something beforehand?”

“Yeah, you can.” he said. “It’s quieter in here. Everybody’s more intense. You can feel it coming.”

And they will need it again on Thursday. That will likely be the game in which the character of these two teams is tested. Someone asked Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to pick one reason why the series was tied, 2-2, right now and he said, “Each team won two games.”

The next one should provide a more thoughtful answer.

But OK. That’s Thursday. For now, take a shower, dry off, and enjoy a moment of appreciation for a hobbled Detroit group that still hasn’t learned when to turn out the lights. What do you give a team that fights the odds time and time again, and keeps coming back, wearing the mean look?

How about a pat on the back.

Uh . . . softly, please. CUTLINE The Lakers’ Byron Scott guards the Pistons’ Isiah Thomas during Tuesday’s game at the Silverdome.

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