PORTLAND, Ore. — They were mobbed together at the center of the court, like some riot scene at a foreign embassy, raising their hands, waving their hands away, screaming until their eyes nearly popped from their sockets.

“IT WAS GOOD! IT WAS GOOD!” insisted the Portland players.

“NO GOOD! NO GOOD!” answered the Pistons.

It was bedlam, madness, the culmination of an evening that threatened to explode, so crazy was this arena, so wild were the fans, so great was the prize. In the balance hung, in many ways, the NBA championship. Now the referees needed a decision.

“GOOD! GOOD!” screamed Portland.

“NO GOOD! NO GOOD!” answered Detroit.

What had happened here? What crazy turn of events had led to this dispute?

With the Pistons leading by one point, the Trail Blazers tried to smother them with a life-sucking press. Suddenly the pass came free to Detroit’s Gerald Henderson, he was wide open, nothing but shiny hardwood court in front of him, and all he had to do was run out the clock and the Pistons were one game from another NBA title and — whoa, what’s this? Henderson was dropping the ball in for a lay-up! A lay-up? And a Portland player grabbed it out of bounds, heaved a pass to Danny Young, who took a few dribbles, fired up a desperation three-point attempt — how there was time for all this is an argument we will address momentarily — and lookie here. Swish.

“GOOD! GOOD!”

“NO GOOD! NO GOOD!”

The referees huddled at center court. Earl Strom threw his arms around Mike Mathis and Hugh Evans. Pistons fans back home hollered at their TV sets. Portland fans were on their feet, stomping, screaming. Chuck Daly, who has never seen a glass that wasn’t half empty or completely cracked, said to himself, “We’re going to overtime.” Good? No good? Good?

No good.

Which means great, as far as the Pistons are concerned.

“Me? I was saying a lot of prayers,” admitted John Salley after the Pistons danced off the court following that crazy exclamation point of an ending — finally, legitimately, with a 112-109 victory and an almost insurmountable 3-1 lead in these NBA Finals. “Then I looked over at Gerald and said, ‘Man, you’re too old to make that kind of mistake. You’re 39 aren’t you? Ha ha.” Forgive him

Well. He may feel like it this morning. Yes, Henderson never should have taken that lay-up, but as he said, “I hadn’t touched the ball all night and I just wanted to make sure I didn’t lose it out of bounds or something.” Forgive him. He was trying to do his job. Which is more than you can say for the timekeeper here. What does RIP city stand for? Rest In Peace? If the guy running the clock wasn’t dead, he had no excuse.

How on earth does a player have time in 1.8 seconds — which is what the clock read after Henderson’s shot — to get a pass, dribble a few times, and then get off a shot? And this was Danny Young, remember, not that guy from the Federal Express commercial. The replays clearly showed there was no time on the clock when Young went to shoot, but the buzzer had yet to sound. Home-court advantage? OK. We’re supposed to be in the same time zone, right?

Ahhh. Forget it. And forget a ridiculous sixth foul on Bill Laimbeer’s sneaker — yes, he was called for tripping Clyde Drexler when all he did was go for a loose ball, which in the final minute of an NBA Finals game is something that should be allowed. And forget Portland’s full-court press, which, for several desperate minutes in the fourth quarter, strangled Detroit and turned a comfortable lead into panic time. Forget all that. The Pistons have.

In fact, right about now, all that’s left on their minds is this: Unless they completely collapse, drive to the wrong arena, take a sudden trip to Burma or develop the world’s worst case of chicken pox, they are about to make history, back-to- back NBA champions, and after this night, let no one say they don’t deserve it.

Here, on an evening where the Pistons had to fight injury (Dennis Rodman), tragedy (Joe Dumars) and a Portland crowd that was rabid and desperate for a win, these 12 players showed that’s it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog that matters. So it was that the smallest men on the team — Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson — stood the tallest when the final whistle sounded.

Here was Johnson, proving that “slump” is a faddish word, lighting up the nets for 20 points, leading a Detroit charge when Thomas was saddled with foul trouble.

Here was Thomas, going nuclear in the third quarter, shooting from seemingly every spot on the hardwood, dropping 22 points in those 12 minutes
— he finished with 32 — shooting as if it were after midnight in his basement court.

And here was Dumars, playing despite the death of his father, his heart as heavy as any five defenders, and yet he did what he had to do, he followed what his father had always preached: Do your job, do it well, do it proud. So it was that Dumars scorched the nets for 26 points, and helped make a critical steal in the final eight seconds. He concentrated, shut out the tragedy, kept his mind on the business at hand.

“Joe,” said Salley, summing it up for everybody, “has the biggest heart I’ve ever seen.”
‘How about this?’

And as a result of all this, the Pistons are on the giddy lip of glory. Check your history books, folks. No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit. It won’t happen this time, either. The Pistons have taken the measure of the Trail Blazers, beaten them twice at home, and the inevitable will sink into the Blazers’ minds, I figure sometime around the fourth quarter of Game 5. “We played right into Detroit’s hand,” said coach Rick Adelman, despite his team’s comeback from a 16-point deficit to a brief lead in the final minutes.

“How about this,” mused Daly, afterwards, “we won two in their building.”

“We’re one win away,” said Mark Aguirre.

“You know,” said Bill Laimbeer. “Portland pressed us, but we were able to overcome it. We won. That’s the bottom line. And I don’t care how weird the ending was.”

Good? No good.

Which means great for the Pistons.

Get the confetti ready.

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