BOSTON — Somewhere, a leprechaun went squish. Somewhere a wicked green witch just keeled over. The dark cloud that hung over Boston Garden whenever the Pistons showed up has been broken apart — finally, finally — and in the closing seconds Wednesday night, as the ball bounced harmlessly out of bounds, there was the most incredible sound, a sound not heard in nearly six years worth of Detroit visits.
“How sweet?” someone yelled to Isiah Thomas as he darted off the court, after the Pistons beat Boston, 104-96, in Game 1 of this Eastern Conference Final, breaking a Garden jinx of 21 consecutive losses. “How sweet was this win?”
He looked at the questioner. He allowed a smile.
“It’s not over yet,” he whispered. “But sweet.”
Pistons win. Pistons win? In the Garden? Where your grave is half-dug upon arrival? In the Garden? Where players mysteriously bang heads and steal last-second passes? In the Garden? Where the Pistons have scraped and bled and twisted and turned and the same nightmare kept swallowing them again and again? Here? They won here?
They won here.
“BLEEPITY BLEEP!” screamed a joyous John Salley as the final seconds ticked away. “GO AHEAD, PRINT THAT! BLEEPITY BLEEP!”
Well, we can’t really print that, John.
But we can understand the emotion. Here was the sock in the eye that the bully had coming to him, here was the rich and famous being outclassed by lesser names, here was . . . well, damn it, justice. The Pistons did everything they needed to do to win this opening game, played intense defense, played over injuries, played over noise, played over bad calls. Isiah Thomas
(35 points) was incredible and Dennis Rodman rose to the occasion and the Pistons never gave up, they fought off every challenge — but all this had happened before and the Pistons still came away empty.
Not this time.
“It was nice to see some of their fans leaving early for once,” said Rodman. They were leaving early? That’s right. Nobody stole the ball this time. Nobody made a last-second lay- up. Larry Bird stood helpless and Kevin McHale stood helpless. The final moments of Game 1 were pure Detroit glory:
Here was Adrian Dantley hitting two straight fadeaway jumpers. Here was Rick Mahorn muscling in a lay-up. And here was Thomas — whoa, baby — what a performance! He played the entire second half, no rest, and yet he seemed to grow stronger as the reality of a Garden win set in. He scored 12 of the Pistons’ final 20 points, including a three-pointer with 5:30 left that had blood all over it.
“Vinnie (Johnson) came off a screen and passed the ball to me and said shoot it,” Thomas said. “I didn’t take the shot. He gave me a weird look. So I dribbled back and let go a three. Thank God it went in.”
Thank God. Thank the heavens. Thank the banshee.
“My Aunt Honey called me today from St. Mary’s, Pa.,” said Pistons coach Chuck Daly, who is Irish. “She told me that the Irish banshee is more powerful than the leprechaun. I never knew that. All these years. I never knew.”
He laughed, and raised his hands.
“We have a weapon!”
They have a heck of a start as well. Game 1 under their belts. Of course, this Eastern Conference final was less a Game 1 than it was a Game 8. Seven bloodbaths had been staged last May, and now, this May, we were picking up where we left off, like returning to a theater after getting a drink of water. Same places. Same faces.
So the screams cascaded down from the Garden crowd with every Celtic basket, and the boos cascaded down with everything Bill Laimbeer did. It was steamy and uproarious and everybody was soaked with sweat 40 seconds into the game. Bad things kept happening to the Pistons, bad calls, bad breaks. Laimbeer went out with a shoulder injury in the third quarter (he is questionable for tonight) and Dantley and Salley were plagued with foul trouble. Detroit was playing with a makeshift lineup down the stretch (James Edwards and Rodman in the final, critical minutes?) and yet there they were.
And in the end, after a series of Boston misses and Detroit foul shots
(Rodman even made one), the game belonged to the Pistons. They walked off with a sudden cool swagger, like businessmen, one job done, another to do tonight.
“You have to play every night like that to beat these guys here,” said Thomas.
“But it was nice to see the people leaving and know they weren’t saying, ‘Ha, the Celtics are gonna kill the Pistons.’ “
They aren’t saying that. More likely they’re saying what we’re all saying this morning: “Here? The Pistons won here?”
They won here. And the immediate feeling is that we should all go home now, the battle has been won, the green monster is dead. That’s not the case, of course. There are plenty more games. No one knows how this series will go. Boston could win in the Silverdome, the odds could swing back. But Wednesday night cast an undeniably new shadow on this thing: Look. The Celtics bleed. They can go home losers from their own building.
Game 9 tonight. At the Garden. The leprechaun will watch from someplace else.
The banshee, on the other hand . . . CUTLINE Isiah Thomas stretches to guard Boston’s Kevin McHale Wednesday night during the first game of the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals. The Pistons won, 104-96.