So this is what it came down to. Two free throws by the hottest shooter on the best free-throw shooting team in the NBA. The Pistons, clinging to a one-point lead, could only watch.

Ricky Pierce launched the first. It rolled around the rim and out.

Out?

Ricky Pierce launched the second. It thumped off the rim a few times and fell out.

Out?

Well, now. Detroit will take that. Not only that. A few seconds later, they’d take a collision between Jack Sikma and Fred Roberts as they fumbled a rebound out of bounds.

Thank you very much.

And a few seconds later, they’d take Sikma dribbling off his leg and over the half-court line for a violation, Pistons’ ball.

Really. You shouldn’t have.

End of game. No problem. Hey, Milwaukee. The Pistons will take every mistake you want to give them. This isn’t Atlanta, you know.

“That,” Joe Dumars would say after Detroit dragged out an 85-80 victory over the Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Wednesday night, “is what they call being lucky in the playoffs.”

Better lucky than good. Detroit wins, or, rather, Milwaukee loses — loses what might have been its best chance to catch the Pistons sleeping. Sleeping? Did you watch that first half? It might have been subtitled “Night Of The Living Dead.” Detroit threw bricks, ran the court like bulldozers and scored 39 points. Thirty-nine points?

“I put two words on the board at halftime,” coach Chuck Daly said. ”
‘Settle’ and ‘work.’ “

He could have added ‘wake’ and ‘up.’

Let’s face it. The Pistons arrived for this game as fashionably late as their fans. Say, around the third quarter? But then, they had a good excuse. This was their first game in eight days, the longest lay-off of the year, longer than the All-Star break, longer than training camp. Banging bodies miss banging bodies. The bruises miss the old irritation. It showed. The Pistons played as though coming out of a long fitful sleep and some parts woke up faster than others. The wrists, for example, which didn’t come back with the same silky shooting touch. Or the legs, which didn’t zip downcourt in their normal frenzy.

“At what point out there did you finally shake the rust of this layoff?” someone asked Isiah Thomas, who shot 4-for-17.

He grinned. “When the game was over.”

Good answer.

Of course, trying to shake rust against the Milwaukee Bucks is easier said than done. Slow? If they made Swedish movies about basketball, the Bucks would be the stars. They don’t pick, they trap-block. They don’t hit three-pointers, they kick field goals.

Slow? Milwaukee brings the ball up with all the energy of a Zamboni machine. Slow? It’s not a real play unless four Bucks throw screens and at least four opponents go “unmmphh.” Slow? If they shoot before five seconds left on the shot clock, the Bucks don’t count it. They fast-break once a month. For Lent.

This was an actual play by the Bucks Wednesday night. Rickey Green held the ball near half-court, five seconds, 10 seconds, palming it behind his back, looking about as active as a grandfather on a porch. Finally, he decided to move, dribbled a few times, dished to Fred Roberts on the baseline and Roberts hit a jump shot over Mark Aguirre, who, I believe, was snoring.

There were signs all over the Palace Wednesday night — “The Bucks Stop Here.” Really. How could you tell?

The one thing the Bucks do have — and perhaps it’s the reason they are here against the Pistons — is Pierce. Can this guy shoot? He may be telepathically connected to the rim. With the body of a forward and a touch like melted butter, he is deadly. Watching him and Vinnie Johnson square off is like watching a battle between two blow torches.

“We tried Joe on him, we tried Vinnie on him, we tried Rodman on him,” Daly said, shrugging. “We couldn’t stop him.”

Right. Only Pierce could stop himself. It seems a shame his 25-point night will be forgotten in light of his two missed free throws.

But these are the playoffs.

“I was shocked when he missed those,” said Rodman, who has missed his share. “Oh my goodness. A great shooter like him? Wow.”

“Did you empathize with him?” he was asked.

“No,” he said.

Good answer.

And on to Game 2. The Pistons will have to be better. Against this tooth-pull of a team, they need to slap themselves in the face. Regain their jump shots. Their rebounding. And their concentration.

John Salley was the biggest lift Wednesday. Picking up where he left off against Boston, he scored 14 points and they all mattered. He grabbed rebounds. He slammed dunks. They should have given him a bugle, since he — and Bill Laimbeer — seemed to be the only ones fully awake out there. “All I kept thinking was win, win,” Salley said. “We had to keep working at it until something happened.”

Fortunately, it happened before the start of “The Arsenio Hall Show.” Unfortunately, what happened was more an ugly collapse by Milwaukee than a surge by the Pistons. The Detroit “rally” in the final seconds consisted of Laimbeer hitting his free throws.

That’s OK. Whatever it takes. They’ll need more for Game 2. They’ll need Thomas to refocus and to “stop going to the hoop at 50 miles an hour without controlling my shot.” They’ll need Dumars (2-for-10) to regain his touch. They’ll need Rodman (six rebounds) to snatch the ball the way he usually does
— off the offensive and defensive glass. And they’ll need Rick Mahorn (16 minutes, 0 points) to show up.

The plain fact is, the Pistons got to watch the Bucks give them this game at the end, and it probably won’t happen twice. Then again, the Bucks got to watch a sleepy-eyed Pistons team, heavy with the drag of seven days off. That won’t happen again either.

“Let’s see,” a reporter recounted to assistant coach Brendan Suhr as the coaches sat and recovered in their dressing room, “Pierce misses two free throws, Sikma and Roberts knock the ball out of bounds and Sikma dribbles off his leg over the half-court line. Those are three very fortuitous occurrences at the end of the game.”

“Yeah,” Suhr said, “and lucky, too.”

Good answer.

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