They were not hard shots. There was enough time to set the feet and steady the hands. They were not faraway shots. Some were close enough to bank, others no farther than the free throw line.

“The kind of shots we took today were the kind we pray for,” said a shrugging Isiah Thomas after the Pistons were stunned by the Chicago Bulls, 94-88, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday, their first loss in more than a month. “We just couldn’t knock them down.”

Knock them down? They couldn’t push them in if they were standing on a ladder above the rim. Basketball is a simple game: You put it in the hoop, you win; miss, and it doesn’t matter how loud your fans get.

So it was that Detroit’s playoff bubble was burst Sunday at the sold-out Palace. Never mind that Chicago raced to a ridiculous 24-point lead in the first half. Never mind that Michael Jordan, this month’s favorite magazine cover, flamed then fizzled in a single afternoon. “We could not make a shot,” said coach Chuck Daly afterward. “We . . . could . . . not . . . make . . . a
. . . shot.”

Read his lips: When it counted, they clanked.

Chicago leads, 1-0.

Oh, Game 1, how did we lose thee? Let us count the ways. Joe Dumars, five baskets in 16 attempts. Vinnie Johnson, three baskets in 11 attempts. Isiah, three baskets in 18 attempts. Easy shots were soaring past the net, slapping off the glass, clunking off the rim. You could see rust shaking off the Pistons’ fingers.

“Do you ever remember a game where the entire backcourt shot so badly?” someone asked Dumars in the subdued postgame locker room.

“Yeah, once or twice.”

He wiped his face with a towel.

“I think we lost those, too,” he said.

OK. First of all, nobody panic. It is just one game. The Pistons will still win this series, it says here. You may recall that last year, they also lost one, at home, to the Bulls, then turned around and buried them. Besides, the Chicago locker room after the win was just a little too happy, as if they themselves were surprised at what they’d accomplished. “They said it couldn’t be done!” some players said to each other, slapping hands. Hey, guys. Best-of-seven series, remember?

Just the same, you too might party hearty if your opponent had beaten you every time you met this season — six straight wins, nine including last year’s playoffs — then threw at you what the Pistons called a game Sunday.
“Game?” said Dennis Rodman, rolling his eyes. “It was a nightmare. That first half was like us saying ‘Here, you want a lay-up, have one. You want another one? Take another one.’ “

Indeed, this hardly seemed like the two best teams in the Eastern Conference; it was more like the counselors against the campers. The clear-favorite Pistons allowed the Bulls to streak ahead — waaaaaay ahead — then began to chase them down as if taking two steps to their one. The 24-point lead shrunk to 16 at halftime, eight at the end of three quarters, and disappeared completely with 8:35 left, when a Rodman lay-up put the Pistons up, 74-73. Wheee! Isn’t this fun? It would have been a perfect cap to a wonderful comeback — except that the game wasn’t finished yet.

And that’s when the Bad Boys got bad, in the old way, which is to say, not good. Thomas (covered all game by Jordan) missed two free throws. John Salley turned the ball over. Rick Mahorn missed two free throws and was called — rather meekly, it seemed — for an offensive foul trying to set a screen with 29 seconds left and the Pistons down by three. Fans groaned. The Bulls smiled. They may be new at this Conference Finals stuff, but they are not dumb. If Detroit (39 percent shooting) wants to hand it over, they’ll take it.

“We did not come here to lie down and get stomped on,” Jordan would say afterward. He hit a few free throws. Slapped high fives with his teammates. And suddenly, for the first time in more than a month, for the first time in the playoffs since last June, for the first time ever at the Palace in a postseason game — the Pistons walked off losers.

“That was not Detroit Piston basketball,” said Bill Laimbeer, whose 15 rebounds were a rare bright spot on the home-court canvas. “We didn’t play smart. If we boxed out in the first half, if we made our free throws in the second, we’d have won that game.”

They didn’t, they didn’t.

And they didn’t.

Here is a theory: The game was lost because the Pistons had such a long layoff — five empty days — while the Bulls were still going on adrenaline from their victory over New York in the quarterfinals Friday night. Not bad. Catching the Bulls in that first half was indeed like trying to jump a moving train. But the theory collapses when you realize that in the second half, the Bulls shot 13-for-34 and committed one foul after another. You should be able to beat a team like that.

Here is another theory: The Bulls are in the driver’s seat now, because Jordan didn’t really play well, and they won anyhow. Yeah. Well. Not really. Jordan did have 32 points, and besides, one guy not playing magnificently is not the same as your entire backcourt going ker-plop.

How about this theory: The Pistons need to make their shots.

“I’ll go along with that,” said Dumars.

“That was the story,” said Thomas.

“Right there,” said Rodman.

Sounds unanimous to me.

So on we go, Game 2. Sure, there is more pressure on Detroit because of the loss. The home-court advantage, which they fought so hard for all year, is temporarily lost. But perhaps, in an odd way, defeat has its good points. Sooner or later, the Pistons were going to be forced into a tough situation. Feeling invincible is not a good habit in the NBA. “I don’t think we ever believed we weren’t going to have to win some games on the road,” said Dumars.

As for the shooting touch? Will it come back? Are the Pistons worried? In the middle of the 50th question about what went wrong Sunday, Isiah Thomas looked up from his locker to see best friend Mark Aguirre, who was already dressed, waving his hand.

“Yo, Zekey-Dekey,” he said. “Are we gonna get some ribs tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll call you.”

“Good.” Isiah smiled, then turned back. “Now where were we . . . “

No worries.

CUTLINE Piston Bill Laimbeer slams the floor in disagreement after a foul call Sunday, as the Chicago Bulls beat the Pistons 94-88 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at the Palace. The loss was the Pistons’ first in more than a month.

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