It was everything they had, every ounce of desire, strength, guts. The Pistons kept the Celtics at bay with three minutes left, Danny Ainge missed a long jumper, but the Celtics got the rebound, Larry Bird missed a long jumper but the Celtics got the rebound, Robert Parish missed, the Celtics again. It was as if destiny was toying with Detroit, ignoring its blood. Two more times the Celtics would miss and get their own crazy rebound. And then Ainge, standing outside the three-point mark, sending an airborne bullet that swished. Through the heart.
Life goes on. The Pistons do not. There is no way they deserved to lose this game, this heartbreaker of a series, no way except from a scoreboard point of view. And that is all that counts. So when the buzzer sounded it was the Celtics in each others’ arms, laughing, cheering, celebrating a 4-3 series title and a 117-114 victory. It is hard for anyone to believe this morning, at least anyone who has followed this remarkable series, watched the sweat, seen the Detroit team play until there was no heart left to pump, play well enough to win four games, maybe five, and only end up with three.
Detroit had its foot in the door of history. It slammed closed with a finality that was at once painful and indisputable. When the game ended the Pistons simply stared at the court that had been their burial ground.
“That’s it?” they seemed to say.
Here was brilliant theater, you couldn’t ask for more in that department, and right from the start, the Pistons had the intensity of a surgeon holding a human heart. No smiles. No celebrating here. Stares and tight jaws and constant screaming from the coaches, every move, every play, analyzed, dissected, the lessons passed on to the players on the bench. The first quarter was Detroit’s finest start — offensively and defensively — of this series. The crowd noise dropped from ungodly to uncomfortable. The job was getting done.
But Celtics basketball is a choke-lock, you can wiggle but you rarely get free. And so at halftime, with Isiah Thomas sitting much of the second period with three fouls, the Pistons led by just one point.
And then, when the third period began, when somebody’s season was down to its last 24 minutes, the Celtics came to life, and ugly misfortune decided to sit in the Pistons’ lap. Bird threw a ridiculous high-banker up over Adrian Dantley and it found net. 75-72 Celtics. Parish dished off to a wide-open Ainge. 79-72. Darren Daye played volleyball with his own shots, miss, rebound, miss rebound, miss, put it in. And then the Celtics went for the emotional kill. Bill Walton entered the game. The Garden responded with a hero’s welcome, even though he hadn’t done a thing all series.
And then Vinnie Johnson and Dantley dived for a loose ball and banged heads and Dantley never got up. He was wheeled out on a stretcher, only semiconscious.
“It’s all over, Detroit!” taunted a throaty fan near the Pistons’ bench.
“It’s over! It’s over!”
If history had a heart, the Pistons would have won it right there. But the facts are the facts. Bird took over in the fourth quarter, he was everywhere, scoring, passing, and finally, when time ran out in this sweat box, celebrating.
The summer goes on. The Pistons do not. This hurts terribly in Detroit, because the city desperately fell in love with basketball during these last two weeks, or rather, fell in love again, a rekindled affair. Isiah’s pops, Dantley’s spins, Laimbeer’s flicked-wrist jumpers — they had all become part of the household recently, like knick-knacks collected and put on the shelf. And suddenly you wake up this morning, and they are behind glass.
Hadn’t the Pistons became the sentimental favorites of basketball fans across the country? With each passing game, each slice of clamped-jaw determination, the Detroit band wagon was more and more full. In Portland and Milwaukee and Boise and Squaw Valley and Charlotte and New Orleans and Brooklyn? Weren’t they rooting for Detroit? Didn’t most everybody want to see a fresh Eastern champion, want to see someone beat the Celtics and the legends they cart around like a medicine man with a sack full of magic?
But desire only reaches to the out-of-bounds line. On the floor, it’s the players and on this day, the Celtics were just too much the Celtics.
“That’s it?” the team seemed to ask.
No fair, it seems, that now and forever the picture of Bird stealing that pass in Game 5 will haunt the memory of this series, it will always be there, like a dull ache, like a scar. And however bad the fan feels, the players involved — Thomas, Laimbeer, Dumars — feel worse. They may say nothing. They may shrug it off. You never shrug it off. The series at that time was on the brink, delicate, like high heels on an oil slick. One fall, and the stain was all over them, indelible.
What hurts is not just that play. But if you flipped this series around, if the Pistons had won Saturday, the Celtics would have little to complain about. They had already been soundly beaten three times, virtually beaten in Game 5, and took them to the limit — without Dantley — in Game 7.
The Celtics? Salute their pride, their obstinance, even their arrogance, for if you admire victory, if that’s really what you wanted Saturday, then you will understand these are all qualities that ensure it. They just belong, in the Pistons fans’ case, to the wrong people.
But it seems wrong to say the Pistons lost this series. It sounds better to say they finished second, in a photo at the tape, and depending on the angle, you could maybe, possibly, say that . . .
Never mind. In ends here, in a steamy Boston garden on a muggy Saturday afternoon. You look around the Boston Garden court, where everything came crashing down, now empty and quiet, and the finality of it comes to you like the end of summer, like the last guest leaving a party.
That’s it? That’s it.