NO MIRACLE FOR PISTONS THIS TIME

This time, there was no magic. No Isiah either. This time the Portland Trail Blazers proved that what counts is not how you start but how you finish, and this is how they finished: on top.

“Take that!” the Blazers seemed to say as they raced off the Palace court, ending a heart-thumping overtime marathon, 106-105, to tie up the NBA Finals at one game apiece. You know what they did? They hit their free throws. They got enough of them. The Blazers went to the line 41 times to 23 for the Pistons, and anyone who says you get the calls at home can have this game tattooed to his forehead. The most common picture of the night was Chuck Daly, dropping his head in front of the Detroit bench, as the echo of the whistle rattled in his ears.

He stood in that pose with two seconds left in the overtime, when Portland’s Clyde Drexler stuck in the dagger, dropping a pair of free throws and putting an end to what could have been one of the most dramatic stories in Pistons playoff history. Drama? Did we say drama? How about Bill Laimbeer going nuts from three-point range, hitting six on the night — tying a Finals record — including one rainbow that should have won this thing in the final seconds. It put the Pistons on top, 105-104. How about Dennis Rodman, the best defensive player in the league, getting called for a questionable foul on Drexler, then falling to his knees in disbelief. How about James Edwards, who pulled every kind of shot out of his weathered bag Thursday night — he made most of them — and here he was going up for the final attempt of the night, milliseconds left, taking two Portland bodies with him, getting no call, and seeing the ball clank off the side of the backboard.

“AW, COME ON! COME ON!” screamed Chuck Daly.

The refs just stared at him. The crowd went silent.

“After I hit that shot, I looked at the clock and saw four seconds, which is an eternity in the NBA,” said a disappointed Laimbeer after the game. He was right. But what should concern the Pistons more than the final seconds was the big chunk of basketball in the middle. Does anyone remember the second and third quarters, where this game was lost? Attention all units: Be on the lookout for a missing Pistons offense.

This is an offense? Isiah, bouncing at the top of the key, waiting, waiting, then finally spinning in and forcing something. Mark Aguirre, standing at the top of the key, passing up an open shot, then after eight seconds of nothing, taking that same shot — only now with a man in his face. What happened to Joe Dumars’ contribution? What happened to the pass? What on Earth is wrong with Vinnie Johnson? He has made one basket in this series, and it was a lay-up. I know Portland is playing good defense on the Pistons’ favorite plays — dumping it in to Edwards or running a screen for Dumars — but Detroit is a bright enough bunch to come up with counters for that, isn’t it? The fact is, if Detroit wins one out in Portland — and I fully suspect this will happen — everyone will sing a different tune. What is important is understanding why the Pistons are in this position in the first place. If the problems are fixed, there is nothing to worry about. If the problems persist, the remaining games might not even be this close.

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