t breath, facing elimination, their normal fate in the postseason, and suddenly they found something. And they fought back. They clawed, scratched, and lookie here: They outplayed the defending NBA champion Pistons, outrebounded them, outshot them, outhustled them and beat them. They found something all right. His name is Sidney Moncrief, a guy who who was selling cars last year, a guy whom nobody wanted, a guy who came out of retirement to join this team because he missed moments like these, when the night was suddenly in his hands and he could shoot a team all the way into a Game 5.

“Oh, yes, this is exactly what I missed the most,” Moncrief said, smiling, after the Hawks jolted the Pistons, 123-111, to force a showdown finale in this best-of-five playoff series. “The competition. The feeling of
. . . doing something. It’s the reason I came back.”

He did something all right. He helped slap the Pistons smack in their perhaps overly confident heads. Of course, to be honest, many of us — including this writer — were equally confident. If you had written the script before Thursday night, you would have said, “Hawks play well for three quarters, then fold. Pistons win. As usual.” And that is exactly how it went
— until the finish.

And suddenly, like some flash from a “Back To The Future” movie, here was Moncrief, with little hair left on his head now, wearing a Hawks uniform instead of the Milwaukee green, and he turned and hit a 14-foot jumper. Bang. Then he turned and hit another. Bang. Then he stole the ball from Isiah Thomas and drove the length of the court, against all those younger legs, and he got there first, lay-up. The crowd roared. Six straight points. And suddenly, the Hawks could see the finish line of the evening, and they had an eight-point lead. Another Moncrief jumper. Two Moncrief free throws. Two more Moncrief free throws. Twenty-three points for the night.

“I think Sidney watched Nolan Ryan throw that no-hitter,” Doc Rivers joked after the game. “Then he saw Rickey Henderson steal that base at age, what, 33? And he figured, if those guys can do it. . . . “

Still, who would have expected this? The Atlanta Hawks? After blowing a big lead Tuesday night, they seemed demoralized, dejected, the predictions about this being an easy Detroit series seemed to come back into focus. Even at the shoot-around Thursday afternoon, some of the Atlanta players were talking about their vacation plans.

Not Moncrief. At 33, and a year’s retirement under his belt, he’s had enough vacation. Same for Moses Malone, 36, once the greatest rebounding center in the game, now reduced, like Moncrief, to a substitute role. There have been many embarrassing nights for Malone in Atlanta, nights when his age clearly shows. But Thursday, in what could have been his last playoff game ever, he found some of the old stuff, too. He bumped, grinded, he made his way to the free throw line, where, with all that familiar sweat dripping from his chin, he banged home 6-of-6. Add that to his 11 rebounds, and you have a whale of a game from the old guy.

And a legitimate problem for the Pistons. True, they have been in this situation before: They needed five games to eliminate lowly Washington back in 1988, then went on to the NBA Finals against the Lakers. True, Sunday’s Game 5 is in the Palace, and if the Pistons can’t win there, they don’t deserve to advance. But here was an opportunity to 1) get some rest for hurting players, like Isiah Thomas, who, with a bad hamstring, made one basket all night and turned the ball over six times. 2) Get on a roll of confidence. The regular season certainly didn’t provide one, and Chuck Daly was hoping two wins on the road to close this series might juice the team for the second round.

Now, instead, they must focus all their energy and attention on the Atlanta Hawks, and even if they win Sunday, they will have only two or three days for the next round.

“How can you best describe what happened tonight?” someone asked Joe Dumars, who shot 6-for16.

“They beat us,” Dumars said.

Well put.

And the question now becomes who takes what into Sunday’s game? Will the Hawks be so geeked with newfound success that they will play above their heads, as they seemed to do in Game 1, when they upset the Pistons? Or will they fall back on old ways, figuring, “Hey, we made it this far. That’s good enough,” and die?

As for the Pistons, you figure they will shake this off, the way they shake off most defeats. But then, you figured they would close this thing out Thursday. Know this: Something is painfully flawed in their game. They go through these stretches where they simply cannot shoot. They fall behind by gulps of points, and then must dig deep to come back. One day — be it this month, next month, next year, whenever — they will dig and there will be nothing there.

So be it. That will play itself out in time. For now, while you chew your fingernails and watch the clock until Sunday, at least pay tribute to a fine fellow who, for one magic night, when his team needed it most, rediscovered his game, found the touch that used to light up the Milwaukee Bucks, found it once more and delivered a reminder that old men aren’t always dead, just because they lose their hair.

“Did that remind you of the old Sidney Moncrief?” someone asked Hawks guard John Battle.

“I’m too young to remember him,” Battle laughed. “But I like the new version.”

On we go.

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