In the final moment, it was Isiah Thomas cradling the basketball and Dennis Rodman shaking his clenched fists and Bill Laimbeer with the gritty, mean look of a man on a mission, or in desperate need of a bathroom.

“What made you so intense those last few minutes?” someone would ask Laimbeer, who led the final act as the Pistons defeated Chicago, 102-95, and advanced to the NBA Eastern Conference final. “You were on fire.”

“I just wanted to win the game for us,” he said. “When I got the rock I knew I could put it in. Besides, it’s best to get these things over with quickly.”

Five games.

Quick enough?

Goodby to you, Chicago. There was a lot of talk about the Bulls being more

than just Michael Jordan, but nobody said how much more. No Air, no breathe. The Pistons smothered them, took the wind out of the Windy City and left the quarterfinals having played just one more game than minimum — mostly because when they shut Jordan down, the rest of the Bulls could barely charge.

Not when Detroit turned it on. And man, did they turn it on in the closing act Wednesday night. You’ve heard about basketball not really counting until the final two minutes? Make that five minutes. Until then, this had been a trade-off affair, with dabs of brilliance and dips of incompetence. And coming down the stretch it was anyone’s game, 83-82, Pistons with 5:42 to go.

And then Laimbeer. He must have said to himself: “Wait a minute. We lose this, I have to work another day. I’ll miss fishing.”

Look out. The big man hit a three-pointer from the left of the key and threw his hands into the air like a referee signaling touchdown. The crowd sprung to life. He grabbed a loose ball and tapped in a lay-up; another two points, another crowd eruption. He grabbed a defensive rebound, hit another long jumper from the corner — another fist, another eruption. A time-out was called, the music swelled, Laimbeer came off pointing a mean finger, while the Bulls slinked back to their bench, counting the seconds to the inevitable finish.

Goodby to you. Let’s say something right here. You may have your doubts about these Pistons. You may be one of the folks who said, “This team isn’t even as strong as last year’s.” You may even dismiss Chicago as too weak an opponent to judge. But the fact is, Los Angeles, last year’s world champion, is struggling against Utah, and Boston, last year’s runner-up, is struggling against Atlanta and meanwhile the Pistons dropped one careless game in five chances and are now home, sleeping late, as you read this.

“How did you get them motivated?” someone asked coach Chuck Daly, who had said before the game that his team played best when it felt threatened.
“How did you get them up when you were already leading three games to one?”

“I told them to pretend this was the seventh game of the playoffs,” he said. “I told them if they pretended it was and played like it was, they wouldn’t have to sit there for a real one on Sunday.”

Smart move. It worked. The Pistons are back in the Final Four of the NBA because when they needed to be sharp, they were razor sharp. Laimbeer and Joe Dumars down the stretch were unblinking. And fittingly, Jordan’s final shot, a long three- point attempt, caromed off the rim, just as his team has caromed out of the playoffs. The double team Detroit put on Mr. Wonderful is a credit to the coaches’ brains and the players’ execution. In only one game did Jordan score more than 30 points, which for him is another day at the mill.

“How happy are you to be done with guarding him?” someone asked Dumars in the locker room afterwards.

“Extremely happy,” he answered, smiling. “Extremely happy.”

And Joe Dumars doesn’t say things twice.

So the Pistons advance, they get there before anybody. And it makes you wonder what might lie ahead. Following Atlanta’s shocking upset of Boston Wednesday night (the Hawks lead the series, 3-2, with Game 6 in Atlanta) we now must consider a brand-new question: Could it be that this year, Detroit arrives for the party and Boston does not?

“Wouldn’t you be just a little disappointed if Boston didn’t make it and you couldn’t play them again for revenge?” a TV reporter asked Thomas.

“No,” said the guard, raising his eyebrows. “And for you to even ask a question like that — you must be whacko!”

Well. No need to worry about that now. The Pistons beat Chicago partly because they match up so well against them (Dantley can take Scottie Pippen apart, Thomas is in another league from Sam Vincent, and after Jordan, who’s going to slay Detroit? Dave Corzine?). But matching up against Atlanta or Boston is a tougher story.

And a story for later. For now, savor. For now, recall the Pistons’ great defense. For now . . . fish.

Fish?

“Oh yeah, I’ll go fishing tonight,” Laimbeer said as he tied his shoes before leaving the Silverdome. “I live on a lake. I walk 40 yards. I’m in the water.”

“Really? What do you fish for?”

“Bass. Caught a five-pounder the other night. Maybe I’ll get one tonight. But I’ll just throw it back.”

Sure. And when it hits the water, he can throw his hands in the air. Touchdown. We win. Goodby to you, Chicago. Detroit sails on.

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