This time, there was no magic. No Isiah either. This time it was the Portland Trail Blazers who 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. “Take that, Detroit! You may know fourth quarters, but we know what to do in overtime.”
Yeah. You know what they did? They hit their free throws. They got enough of them. The Blazers went to the line 41 times while the Pistons went just 23 times, 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.
Tuesday is not Thursday. And sometimes the end is not the best part.
“After I hit that shot, I looked at the clock and saw four seconds, which is an eternity in the NBA,” said a disappointed Bill Laimbeer after this was over. 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 probably lost? Attention all units: Be on the lookout for a missing Pistons offense?
That’s the real problem. Let’s be honest. This morning, there will be much talk about those referees and maybe some of it will be justified. But when your heart stops racing and your blood stops boiling and you cleanse the memory of Isiah Thomas missing the final shot in regulation and fouling out in overtime, this, if you look carefully, is what you will see: The Pistons should not have been in that situation to begin with. They were at home, they had every reason to be confident, and yet for the middle portion of this game they played like a college freshman slumped over his typewriter, head in hands, trying to come up with an opening paragraph.
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 in this thing? Wasn’t he the Pistons’ leading scorer this season? 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? Haven’t other teams known their favorite plays all year?
This unimaginative offense has forced the defense to be miraculous, and while it often lives up to the billing, it can’t do it every night. There’s something more at work here. Something inside. “It’s hard to understand,” said Daly, “we’ve come all this way and suddenly we lose our emotion for winning? They may disagree with me, but that’s what I see. Maybe it’s too many games in too many years. It may be fatigue. Whatever. I don’t see the emotion in wanting to win the way we once had it.”
Whoa. If that doesn’t scare you, nothing will.
Now, Daly may be trying to pump up his men through the press, and that’s fine. I doubt they’ll need that now. Three games in Portland should do it.
“We have the home court advantage,” Blazers coach Rick Adelman boasted.
Well. A word about that. For all the noise about what a huge difference home court makes, let’s remember that the last two years, the visiting team has won Game 3 of the Finals. Take that statistic and put it in your book. Sure, the Pistons haven’t won in Portland in 16 years. But those 20 games were almost often a year apart. These next three will be two days apart. If you don’t know the difference, you don’t understand sports.
“We got to go to Portland, take our raincoats and win some games,” said an optimistic Laimbeer.
“It’s nut-cracking time,” said John Salley.
And the fact is, if Detroit wins one out in Portland — and I fully suspect this will happen — everyone will sing a different tune about the home-court thing. It’s the way these Finals go. The smart people learn to ignore it and concentrate on the important things. And Thursday night, the important thing was not the heart-breaking whistles, or the miraculous output by Laimbeer, or Clyde Drexler showing his spunk by scoring the Blazers’ last six points, or the lump in the throat that came with the final buzzer.
Nuh-uh. What is important is understanding why this Detroit team was in that position in the first place. If the problems — emotion, offense — are fixed, there is nothing to worry about. If the problems persist, the remaining games may even be this close.