DETROIT GETS HOT! PISTONS EARN 111-86 WIN THE HARD WAY

They had a mean look all night, a look you would not want to cross. Sweat down their temples, sweat down their arms, sweat dripping off their chins. No smiles. No give. Mean.

“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 in Game 4 of the National Basketball Association final. “Backs to the wall. You know what that means?”

It means this: Isiah Thomas, hobbled with a bad back, taking a charge, falling, 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.

Backs to the wall.

Or should we say floor? Did you catch that moment? Thomas and Rickey Mahorn
— 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.

“NO LET UP!” Bill Laimbeer screamed during time-outs, “WE DON’T LET UP!”

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. But if Sunday was a carnival atmosphere, Tuesday was a summer night in a local gym. All sweat and growl. All business. All tied up now.

“Are you gonna play tonight?” someone had asked Thomas when he limped into the Pistons’ locker room an hour and a half before game time.

“These are the championships,” he said, shrugging.

And there he was Tuesday, limping, straining, but out there, and with seconds left in the third quarter, he popped out to the three-point corner and fired away.

Swish!

Backs to the wall.

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 here at home, and now, in Game 4, another loss would be devastating. You could book the weekend barbecue.

Instead, they came out focused. There was no concentration problem on the bench this time. The only difficulty Chuck Daly had Tuesday 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.

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 break, 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 Adrian Dantley with drives to the hoop. They trusted the jumper only when it was there. They relied on effort, grit, and desire.

And courage: Here was Thomas falling smack on his back again, unable to get up at first, wincing with a pain that you could feel in the rafter seats. But he did get up, and before he ever reached the bench, he said to Daly, “Let me go back in.”

And two minutes later, he returned.

This may have been one of Isiah’s most important games — even though his statistics were only fair. He had fallen hard on his back in Game 3. He limped into the Detroit locker room before the game. He hadn’t practiced in two days.

“How’s the back?” Vinnie Johnson asked him.

“It’s all right,” said Thomas.

“How’s the back?” asked a reporter. “Pretty good.”

“How’s the back?” asked CBS’s Brent Musburger.

“It’s OK,” said Thomas.

Never mind that he could barely move when he woke up both Monday and Tuesday mornings. Never mind that his wife, Lynn, is 8 1/2 months pregnant. Between the two of them, getting out of bed must have been a slow-motion affair. “Actually, she was moving a little better than me,” Thomas said, laughing. Backs to the wall.

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.

OK. That’s Thursday. For now, dry off. Take a moment of appreciation for a hobbled 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 for more?

Give them 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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