Joe Dumars eyed the basket with careful aim as the frenzied crowd rose to its feet, the tension thick, all he needed was this shot to put it away, just six seconds left, make the shot, got to make the shot, the ball rose, and .
. . the crowd exploded! It was good! It was good! The foul shot was in!

The foul shot?

Well, yeah. This, after all, was the Pistons against the Hawks. You take one point the way you take a briefcase full of unmarked bills. What was the final score, anyway? Nine to eight?

Shoot. Bump. Slap. Bump. We interrupt this warfare for a special bulletin: After two Pistons-Hawks games in 24 hours, the players must take a break for major surgery. Blood transfusions may be arranged. Heaven forbid these two teams meet in the NBA playoffs in a seven-game series. They’ll have to open a M*A*S*H* unit.

“These type of games,” said a heavy-breathing Dennis Rodman, who earned 10 points and 16 rebounds in the Pistons’ 90-87 victory at the Silverdome, “they just drain you.”

Drain? A good word, considering the water that plopped all over the court Wednesday night, the result of frost melting inside the Silverdome roof. The players spent much of the evening flicking away raindrops, which beats the alternative, flicking away each other.

Although there was plenty of that. Bodies slamming, balls swatted backward, angry faces and unfriendly embraces. Here was a rock-solid Atlanta defense that — until a last-minute explosion by a suddenly inspired Pistons team — had corked the Detroit offense the entire game. The Hawks were an ensemble of fleshy shadows that seemed to go wherever the Pistons went, do whatever they did. Not that the Pistons were defensive slouches: In the fourth quarter, Detroit shot 27 percent. Atlanta shot 29 percent.

“We know each other so well,” said a tired Dumars, of the team the Pistons play six times during the regular season and met in the playoffs last spring,
“it’s like they know all our plays.”

“How can you tell?” he was asked.

“Well, when we call a play, they call the same one,” he said, with an small grin. “I call that knowing your plays.”

Can’t argue with that. Bad shooting or good defense? Let us talk here about this familiar enemy: the Atlanta Hawks. Did we say Hawks? That can’t be right. If Hawks moved like this, they’d be called Gorillas.

Here is a team as graceful as a tank, with the soft touch of an anvil, lithe the way a cow is lithe, which is to say, not at all. Even their dribbles are heavy. They have a Tree (Rollins) in the middle, one 7-foot forward (Kevin Willis) with Frankenstein’s cheekbones, another 7-foot forward (Jon Koncak) with braces, and, Wednesday night, perhaps the most magical forward in the game (Dominique Wilkins) sitting injured on the bench — replaced by Antoine
(My Torso Is The Size Of A) Carr.

Impressed? Playing the Hawks is like moving through the jungle with a machete. They all look as if they’re wearing shoulder pads. And that’s with bare shoulders.

“Biggest, strongest team we play,” concurred Pistons coach Chuck Daly.
“These games are always tough. They’re a great defensive team.”

And therefore, not a good opponent against which to shoot 37 percent. Which is what the Pistons shot. Believe it or not, that’s the same as they shot Tuesday night in the loss at Atlanta. Is it incredible defense or woeful offense?

“It’s just good defense on both teams’ part,” said Isiah Thomas, who went 7-for-21. Well. Maybe. But the Pistons’ guards were 10-for-41 from the outside. Bill Laimbeer even missed three free throws. In a row.

“I don’t think he’s ever done that in his career,” moaned Daly. “We’re not getting any rolls.” Better get used to it Not to worry. There’s nothing wrong with the Pistons that a little shooting wouldn’t fix.

First, they could shoot the referees.

Then they could shoot the ball in the basket.

The latter seems to have become a forgotten art, which makes the former seem more and more necessary. Were you there Wednesday night? The refs seemed to take pleasure, the way a TV wrestling viewer might, in watching bodies slam into one another.

But then, we may have to get used to this. Such is the game Atlanta plays
— and the Pistons will play Atlanta plenty more this year. Forget about the Celtics. Detroit will have to concern itself with Hawks before it ever worries about green leprechauns. Two games? Scores 81-71 and 90-87?

Whew.

Better work on those free throws.

“Any thoughts on Friday’s game against the Lakers?” someone asked Thomas just before he left Wednesday night.

He rolled his eyes.

“I am going,” he said, “home to bed.”

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