Suddenly, it was heart against heart. The Lakers had just lost Magic Johnson to a hamstring injury, and the Pistons had just lost their last excuse. There could be no losing now. Not with this advantage. Not with these circumstances. The heart of the champion, pride and will, met the heart of the challenger, hunger and dreams. Only one could survive.

“Not this time, LA,” the Pistons seemed to say, as they whittled away at a weakened Lakers lineup and finally snuffed the Lakers, 108-105, to take a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals — thanks to a missed free throw by LA’s James Worthy with two seconds left. “Too bad about Magic. Too bad about James. See ya later.”

What did you expect, sympathy? Was there any sympathy when Detroit lost Isiah Thomas to injury last year? Was there any sympathy when Joe Dumars, born to be a hero, missed a shot that could have won it all last year? None then. None now.

Instead it was Isiah, driving through the Lakers in the final moments, arching up a high toss and watching it fall. Instead it was James Edwards rising high on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to block him. Instead it was Vinnie Johnson dashing down court and filling up the net with a short jumper. Instead it was Dumars, playing like a banshee, shooting out the lights when the Pistons needed it most. Sympathy? You must be joking.

Instead, they were growing up before our eyes, getting larger, their voices going deeper. They were making the baskets — a Dennis Rodman stuff, a Johnson baseliner, a Thomas jumper. They were making the stops — a block here, a steal there. And they were not embarrassed to take the benefits of LA mistakes.

“Didn’t think we had this killer instinct stuff, did you?” the Pistons seemed to say. “We’ve been watching you. Live and learn.”

Never mind that the Lakers had held them off most of the game. Never mind that Magic Johnson had left with 4:39 remaining in the third quarter, robbing the Lakers of their entire starting backcourt — as Byron Scott was already missing. Never mind all that. What were the Pistons supposed to do, feel sorry for LA? Not here. Not now. Detroit was understanding a simple rule of the jungle: you want to kill the snake, you have to cut its head off.

“INTENSITY!” the Pistons screamed during time-outs in the final minutes.

“NO LET UP!”

In other words: Kill them.

Not that the Lakers didn’t give it a game effort. You can have nothing but respect for what they did without Magic or Scott. Until the final seconds, they could have won this thing, with the Pistons failing to make the critical basket in the final minute. The Lakers had the ball with eight seconds left and a two-point deficit. They drew the foul on Rodman. But when Worthy’s first shot rolled out, the Pistons leaped in the air.

NBA Finals are hard to predict, but when this one is all said and done, Game 2 may prove the critical turnaround. Oh sure, the Pistons had proven volumes already, the best record in the NBA, the deepest bench, the tightest defensive squeeze. Win? They could win, they could beat LA pretty convincingly. But the intangible the Lakers always held was attitude, championship brain cells, the kind that clicked in just in time for the desperation victory. Thursday night, the voices were calling — Arise, Lakers, show them who you are — but suddenly, the Pistons were taller, quicker, they were . . . in the way.

Credit the team defense. Credit Thomas. And credit Dumars, who took over like a knight handed the sword from the stone. Courageous? Just consider what he was up against:

On offense; Michael Cooper, perhaps the best backcourt defender in the league.

On defense: Magic Johnson, maybe the best player in history.

No problem, right?

Dumars did not allow it to be. What a performance! During a critical stretch in the second period, when the Lakers threatened to run away, he almost single-handedly rammed the Pistons back into the game. A behind-the-back dazzle move, topped with a banker off the glass; a 15-foot jump shot; an offensive foul drawn on Mychal Thompson; a running two-hander over Tony Campbell; free throws, free throws, personal fouls, technical fouls, no problem, he’ll shoot anything. And hit it. Dumars had 26 points in the first half. Without him, the Pistons would have been long buried before Magic’s hamstring gave out.

In the end, however, it was the Lakers mistakes, and the Pistons taking advantage. It was Thomas hitting the critical free throws to seal a three-point lead. And it was the Pistons going to Los Angeles with a 2-0 lead. Heart against heart, will against will. The challenger is growing stronger. We go on.

CUTLINE

Detroit’s Anita Baker sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the start of Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Thursday between the Pistons and the Los Angeles Lakers at the Palace in Auburn Hills.

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