HEROES LIKE IT ON PINS, NEEDLES

Like all good heroes, they waited until the final reel of the movie, until you were on the edge of your seat, chewing your fingernails. And suddenly — ta-da! — they were Indiana Jones, ducking the spears, dodging the boulders, swinging across the canyon by a single rope. Never a doubt, right? The home team wins? So when it was all over, and the Atlanta Hawks were lying in shreds on the Palace floor — their hopes of upsetting the champions almost laughable now — here were the Pistons, blowing on the smoke of their guns and saying “Trust us. We know what we’re doing.”

And they do. Here is what they are doing: They are being themselves. It is not always fun. It is not always good for your stomach. But this is your team, Detroit, like it or not: Give them a Game 1 or a Game 4 against a team they are supposed to beat and they might go to sleep and wake up defeated. But give them a showdown, an all-or-nothing game, give them the music and the lights and the big crowd and the director yelling “Action!” — and suddenly, you’ve got King Kong. The Pistons didn’t beat the Hawks Sunday, they ate them alive. Grabbed them out of the air, ripped off their feathers, and chewed them up, yum-yum. First they led by 10 points. (That was, I think, about a minute after the National Anthem.) Then they led by 20 points. Then they led by 30 points. Then I lost count.

“Why is it that you can beat this team by 30 points in the finale but lose to them twice in the earlier games?” someone asked Joe Dumars, after the Pistons demolished Atlanta 113-81 to capture Game 5 and advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs.

“Sometimes,” he sighed, “you got to take the long way home.”
‘They’re human beings’ And once again, Dumars, the philosopher, is right on the money. You can’t have a championship team — a team that has been to the mountaintop not once, but twice, a team that has swallowed every kind of pressure and drama — you can’t have a team like that and expect it to treat every first-round playoff series like the NBA Finals. That would be like asking the Rolling Stones to get excited about playing a senior prom.

“They’re human beings,” Pistons coach Chuck Daly said afterward.
“Sometimes it’s hard for them to get motivated unless it’s a big game.” Unfortunately, such an attitude can get you killed one day. At the very least, it will make for tense moments like Sunday morning, when half this city woke up with stomachaches, wondering if this was the gloomy day the Pistons gave the crown back. After all, they had lost two of four games to these supposedly defeatable Hawks. Now it was all down to one afternoon, and if the Pistons fell short, they would go home for the summer — and then what we do, with all those open dates on our May calendar?

Not to worry. From the opening basket — an Isiah Thomas scoop — the game came back to Detroit the way the swallows come back to Capistrano. Here was Dumars the way we remember him best, sinking the long jumpers as if playing by himself on some hot Louisiana night. Here was Thomas offering his best game since injuring his wrist months ago, driving and dishing and leading all scorers with 26 points. Here was Bill Laimbeer, dropping in the quick-release jump shot, and James Edwards canning the fadeaway jumper, and Dennis Rodman, not only playing superb defense on Dominique Wilkins, but also inventing a new game: shoot, miss, rebound your own shot, put it in. He did that at least four times that I counted. Which means, what? Eight shots, four rebounds — just to get eight points?

Here was that celebrated Pistons defense, playing a one- on-one style — and suffocating the Hawks. For the game, Atlanta shot less than 30 percent. Wilkins was a miserable 4- for-18. Kevin Willis was 6-for-20. “I didn’t think this would happen,” Hawks coach Bob Weiss said glumly.

Maybe he hasn’t watched enough Pistons film. This is how they do it in big games. It was that way in Game 7 against Chicago last year, and that way in Game 6 against Boston two years before that. As Thomas said Sunday: “All that counts is that you advance to the next round.” Never mind all the hair you lost this week. It’ll grow back. And the fingernails? So, you don’t scratch anything for a while. Like I said, you want to live in this town, root for this team, you’ve got to accept certain ground rules.

“At this point, after winning the two championships” John Salley explained, “we’re like the big kid in school that gets slapped and slapped but he doesn’t want to fight. And they keep slapping him, slap, slap, ‘Come on, fight!’ And finally he says, all right. He fights back. And it’s like,
‘Ooops, was that your mother I just beat up?’ ” Celtics up next Which, roughly translated, means: Good-bye, Atlanta. On to Round 2. The good news is that the next opponent shouldn’t require any extra motivation. Of course, that is also the bad news: The next opponent is the Boston Celtics — and not the Boston Celtics the Pistons erased a few years ago in three quick first-round games. No. This Boston club won the Atlantic Division, had a better season record than the Pistons, and will have home-court advantage in this series, which begins Tuesday night at Boston Garden.

In other words, it’s a little like the old Boston Celtics — some of whom, at age 74, are still playing for the team.

“You won’t see any let-up in this next series, I can tell you that,” Vinnie Johnson predicted Sunday. “Against Atlanta, we weren’t focused for all the games. If we were, we would have won the series, 3-0.

“This series against Boston, I think every game is gonna be like Game 5 was today. It won’t take anything to motivate us against them.”

Which is good, right? So why don’t we feel better?

Perhaps because, with each one of these scares — injuries, a mediocre regular season, a couple first-round playoff losses — it reminds us that one day, maybe this year, maybe later, this wonderful championship era will have to come to an end. Someone will jump out of the water and bite the Pistons and make them bleed. And they will not end the movie by riding of into the sunset, the pretty girl on the back of the horse. It is bound to happen. It happens to everybody. That queasiness you feel is called mortality.

And who knows when it will strike? For now, we just ride along in the wagons, and see how far the adventure goes. Tuesday night in Boston Garden: Game 1 of Round 2 of Season No. 3 in the championship story. Maybe what Vinnie says is correct, there will be no off nights this time. And maybe the Pistons will flex their muscles and shoot out the lights and get past these evil Celtics, finish them, defeat them, and then, just think, they get to play . .
. the Bulls?

You know what I think? I think you’d better keep the Pepto Bismol around a few more weeks. That’s what I think.

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