No analysis, please. No end-of-the-world speeches — not after Game 1 of the playoffs. Come on. We know better than that. Never mind that the Pistons shot the ball as if throwing sponges at a clown. Never mind that they looked as in-sync as The Temptations performing with Guns ‘n’ Roses. Never mind that this was an error-filled, poor-shooting, ugly passing affair, a game that was only exciting the way falling off a cliff is probably exciting: For a brief and dangerous moment. In the end, you still crash.
And here is how the Pistons crashed Friday night to lose Game 1 against Atlanta: With balls off the rim and balls off the glass, with one foul after another after another, with Isiah Thomas missing two free throws and Joe Dumars throwing up an airball in the last 24 seconds and, finally, with the defending NBA champions walking off the court slowly, their building half-empty and dead quiet.
The Atlanta Hawks?
What did you think, the regular season was gonna get up and go away?
“You could say we are just getting what the regular season dictated to us,” Dennis Rodman philosophized after the 103-98 defeat. “It’s kind of hard to come into the playoffs when you know you should have been better during the regular season. People say things about you, ‘You’re not as good as you used to be,’ stuff like that, and you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t hear them. We
didn’t get it done tonight. But we have to put that behind us and just concentrate on the next game. We can do it. We’ve done it before.”
And that might be the neatest summary you will find of this game. Good job, Dennis. Now. Let’s burn the film, shall we? Because as Pistons playoffs go, this was a stinker. Fun? It was no fun. Oh, it was exciting, the way losing a contact lens in the middle of a highway might be exciting. But fun? No. Here were the Pistons scrambling all night long, just to stay with the Hawks. Here was the crowd roaring as William Bedford soared for a rebound or John Salley slammed in a dunk or Vinnie Johnson dropped in a feed from Thomas. Unfortunately, the cheers were because the team was closing the gap from nine points to seven, or from seven to five — never because they were leading. In fact, the Pistons never led after halftime. Never led?
The Atlanta Hawks?
Yep. And this is how it will be this time. Nothing easy — not even the first round. It is true, the Pistons have not lost a first-round home game in the playoffs in five years. (Last time was against Atlanta, too.) But it is also true that they were almost eliminated by Washington the year they reached the Finals against LA, and that they trailed Chicago, 2-1, the year they won their first championship.
Like I said, one game means nothing in the playoffs.
“Was this a wake-up call?” someone asked Isiah Thomas in the postgame locker room.
“We were already awake,” he said. “They just beat us.”
“Was the timing off?” someone asked Joe Dumars.
“We just didn’t get our shots to drop.”
“Were you rusty?” someone asked Bill Laimbeer.
“We weren’t rusty. We just didn’t shoot well.”
So much for deep analysis. Of course, none of the above players felt much like talking, seeing as Thomas made only three shots, Dumars missed a dozen, and Laimbeer, after shooting 3-for-12, got himself ejected for throwing a punch. All this while Atlanta was getting a fine effort out of Dominique Wilkins (32 points) and Spud Webb (18 points, two killer three-pointers) while missing only three free throws all night.
Excuses? The Pistons could come up with excuses. They were just getting Mark Aguirre back in the lineup, they were just getting James Edwards back in the lineup, they were forced to use William Bedford as a starter (I still can’t get used to that), and all these changes could throw their timing off. But the fact is, the shooting (38.5 percent) just killed them.
That, and something else. I don’t think teams are as afraid of the Pistons as they once were. That, too, is the cumulative effect of all those losses during the regular season. The Atlanta Hawks of a few years ago might have folded their tents when the Pistons came charging back in the fourth quarter Friday night. Instead, this group held its ground, hit its free throws and won the game. And come Sunday, for the first time in a long time, it will be the Pistons feeling tight and on the edge in the first round.
And so what? My guess is they deal with it just fine, thank you. The Pistons may not be the team they once were, but I don’t think they’ve forgotten everything about winning, do you?
“Patience is a bitter, but its fruit is sweet,” said Salley, always a good philosopher after a loss. And what he means, I suppose, is this: Game 2 is another day, another chance. The Pistons win that, and they are no worse off than they were that year against Chicago, or that year against Washington.
The regular season will not go away. It will be there, a reminder that this team can be beaten on any given night, that health is a big question mark. (Isiah is not back to normal with that wrist, I don’t care what anyone says.) But championship teams don’t rely on excuses — and they don’t look back. They just look at the task ahead, call on their experience and go out and get it done. And don’t forget, this team is full of playoff experience, from Isiah and Laimbeer — who began their playoff days with this team seven years ago, if you can believe that — to Tree Rollins, who has been in the playoffs a dozen times, dating back to 1978. Something tells me losing Game 1 doesn’t make these guys jump under the covers and shiver.
“How many championship rings do you have?” someone asked Gerald Henderson before the game. “Three?”
Henderson shrugged. “Four, after this year.”
You gotta believe.