Late in the game, with the score tied, the crowd on its feet, Chuck Daly leaned toward his captain and snapped an ammonia capsule under his nose. Isiah Thomas jerked his head as if someone had slapped him right across the cheek. The message was clear: Wake up.
“I’ve used those capsules before,” Thomas would say, laughing, after leading a furious Detroit rally that gave Game 1 of the NBA Finals to the defending champs, 105-99. “But usually it’s on some night in New Jersey, middle of the winter, when there’s like 5,000 people in the stands and you’re just trying to stay awake.”
Right. Not in the NBA Finals. But whatever works. Suddenly, after an evening of near sleepwalking, the Pistons were back in control, with Thomas clanging the breakfast bell. Wow! Did you see those final seven minutes? You must have heard them! Here was the little giant going stone-cold nuts down the stretch, firing away, jumper, lay-up, jumper, three-pointer — scoring 12 of the Pistons last 16 points! Here were Dennis Rodman, John Salley and Bill Laimbeer, building a fort around the Portland offense. Here were the Palace fans at their most intimidating, making like a jet engine and prompting Buck Williams and Jerome Kersey to miss four crucial free throws.
“Hey, we didn’t think you guys were gonna get here in time,” the crowd seemed to gush as their heroes walked off the court, victorious. “‘Glad you showed up.’
Oooh, Isiah. And, oooh, Portland. You just got a lesson in NBA championships. Take ’em when they’re given, because they may not come again. For most of the night, the Pistons were hanging from the tree, ripe for the picking. All the Blazers had to do was climb the ladder and pluck. But that is easier said than done, especially for a team making its first championship appearance in 13 years. Before the game, Thomas had talked of the advantage he thought the Trail Blazers had in this series opener. “The pressure is on the home team in the first game. If they play their cards right, they could win this thing.”
For much of the night it seemed they might. The Blazers were quicker than Detroit, a few inches higher, closer to the basketball and definitely on the right side of the referee’s whistle. Buck Williams was rising and throwing in jumpers, and Clyde Drexler was driving to the hoop and dropping in baskets, and Kevin Duckworth, who — I say this with all due respect — is the size of a Winnebago, well, old Kevin was swishing one-handers from the outside. The Blazers looked like lay-up machine.
And the Pistons? They . . . were . . . moving . . . in . . . slow . . . motion. After three quarters, they were shooting all of 36 percent. “In the Finals,” Salley would say, “the body is nothing without the head.” And this body was headless. These weren’t bombs Detroit was missing. Try lay- ups, turnarounds in the paint. Try dropped passes and missed cues and guys out of sync on defense. It was like one of those dreams where you’re falling and falling and at the last second, you wake up. Fortunately, it was Thomas (33 points) who touched earth first. Once there, he seemed to race around the court, slapping his teammates in the face. “You up? You up?”
They’re are now. By one.
Wake up and smell the victory. The will to win
“It’s will, not skill,” Thomas would say to a mob of reporters after the game. They nodded. They scribbled. But most wanted to know about that fourth quarter. Sixteen points? Those rainbow jumpers.
“What does it feel like? How do you do it? When do you know you’ve got it?”
They are the questions of people who have never watched Thomas. He does this all the time. On Tuesday, it happened to be in front of the whole country, that’s all. “We’re a team,” he said. “This game was decided by who wanted it more, that’s all. When we came out after that time-out (down by 10, with 7:05 left) I just went around to each of our guys and said, “How badly do you want it? How badly do you want it?”
He then went out and gave them his answer. Now let’s be honest. There were many times during this game when Isiah tried to do it all and came up short. His shots clanked, his passes were taken away. You could hear the crowd rumbling at times. “What’s he doing? Tell him to pass it more.”
But the fact is, on nights like this, Thomas is the quickest flint the Pistons have. As go-to players go, he’s a darn good choice, especially when he’s driving and hitting from outside. So it was that he went down the lane and scooped it in, and went down the lane and hung for a bank shot, and pulled up outside and let the ball fly, his arms straight out, his wrists bent in textbook form. You can argue with his decisions. On this night, you couldn’t argue with the results.
“He’s our captain; he does things like that,” Daly said. “That was one of his great performances.”
And what about that ammonia capsule?
“Old high school trick,” Daly quipped. “Goes back to Punxsutawney High in Pennsylvania. Hey. We needed something. I’m just glad we had a few of those in the bag.”
Wake up and smell the victory. Blazers were rattled
Or the defeat, if you’re the Trail Blazers. And they’ll be thinking about this one, believe it. This is the type of defeat that sits on the brain like old food sits between your teeth. The Blazers had the champions down at home. They let them up. They failed to score for over four minutes down the stretch.
“Detroit shut us down late in the game” said Williams. That’s being polite. The truth is, the Blazers were rattled in those final minutes, they took bad shots, made bad decisions, and did not rebound. They looked overwhelmed, as if every Piston basket yanked something around their necks.
Fortunate? You bet the Pistons were fortunate. After all, they finished the game with a 37 percent shooting. But you win any way you can, even if it’s with your smallest player on the floor. And even if he got a little help from an ammonia tablet.
“Those things are like getting punched in the nose,” he said, making a face. “You know, how your eyes get all full of water and everything?”
And so does Portland.