He was a breath of cool air in a stuffy closet. A splash of water in a sun-baked desert. Vinnie Johnson was doing something most of his Pistons teammates had suddenly found nearly impossible — hitting his shots. Hitting? Try insisting. He would not take “no good” for an answer. He rose like destiny over any defender, in his face, in his skin, didn’t matter how close, didn’t matter if the guy ate onions and garlic for dinner. Vinnie wanted it. The Pistons needed it.
“You know me,” Johnson said, smiling, after the Pistons knocked off Chicago, 94-85, to take a 3-2 lead in these Eastern Conference finals, thanks largely to Johnson’s fourth- quarter explosion. “If I get hot, I want the ball, and this team gets it to you.”
Gets it? They would have air-expressed it with a note, “Please. Be our guest. Please. We said please.” This, remember, is a team that was shooting barely over 40 percent for this series. And the Pistons came out cold once again in Game 5. How badly did the Pistons need a hot hand? As badly as a kite needs wind. As badly as a cake needs flour. As badly Rob Lowe needs a good lawyer. Hey. Detroit was in danger of being renamed The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
But, (after an initial burst from Mark Aguirre) along came Vinnie, down the stretch, finally cutting through the sheath that had seemed to swallow the Pistons basket throughout this series. Around a screen and up in the air, body bent like a crowbar, shoot it, score! Over a big man, leaning in, hands in his face, score! Into Michael Jordan, up in the air, shake and bake, score!
“This was a big game, a real big game for us,” Johnson said, sweat still dripping down his skin minutes after his 22-point performance came to an end.
“They closed us off in the first half, and we needed somebody to get hot. Just happened to be me.”
The only thing missing was the yellow scarf and the bugle. If Vinnie Johnson wasn’t the cavalry, I don’t know what is.
It was like a replay of the first four games,” said a weary Chuck Daly afterwards. “Every shot was contested. Every loose ball was contested. There was dogged defense. And we fell behind early.”
Behind? Yes. In front of the home crowd, the Pistons were like a sprinter suddenly discovering he has but one shoe.
Here was a first half that was as ugly as it was dull. Nobody had to worry about free pizzas for high scoring on this night. The Pistons picked up their poor shooting from the opening whistle: Joe Dumars wide open — in and out; Aguirre wide open — off the glass; Isiah Thomas wide open — off the front of the rim. Wait a minute. This was the Palace, wasn’t it? Home? A cleansing rinse after the filthy loud pair of games in Chicago?
Maybe it was. But the Pistons offense looked like it was playing here for the first time. So inept were they in the first quarter, that Chicago coach Doug Collins took Michael Jordan out with 5:08 left, figuring, “Hey, we already have an eight-point lead. As long as they can’t shoot, might as well rest my superstar.”
Even more astounding? The remaining cast of Jordainaires — who by themselves, have as much appeal as the group that backed Elvis — not only held the lead, but expanded it to 10 points. The Pistons finished the first quarter with 22 field- goal attempts — and just six baskets. Hey. Take us back to Chicago. At least there was the foreign arena excuse.
Here were the lowlights: John Salley stealing the ball from Michael Jordan, racing downcourt, only to clumsily drive the lane, leaping too soon, heaving an awkward miss; Johnson following and tossing a lay-up smack into the rim; Isiah down the baseline, bumping into Jordan, and getting called for traveling. Rick Mahorn getting whistled for everything he touched. Slap the ball away? SHRIEK! Foul. Poke a pass away? SHRIEK! Foul.
But you know the Pistons’ battle cry: Defense. And so, even as their shots did not fall, they kept the lid on Michael Jordan, limiting his shots. On the night, he would take just eight, score just 18 points. (Afterwards there was a bit of a heated exchange between Collins and the media, with Collins questioning why the media was critical of Jordan’s low-scoring night. “What do you want him to do?” Collins said. “Shoot against three guys? You guys are amazing. When he scores 46 points you call him a one-man team, when he only takes eight shots you call him the highest paid decoy in the league.”)
The Pistons had their own worries. They needed to break ahead before Jordan rediscovered his game. Enter, finally, Aguirre, in the third quarter, with eight quick points. He seemed to be saying “Look guys. remember how it’s done. Eyes on the basket. Flick the wrists . . . “
And then, of course, there was Vinnie.
Pistons fans had been waiting for an explosion like this from the guy they call “Hoo” (as in “Hoooo, Baby!”). He had not enjoyed a good series to this point. But there he was Wednesday, back to his old tricks, driving around screens, throwing impossible shots at the net and watching them swish.
And finally, his inspiration took. James Edwards came alive underneath, slammed in a basket. Joe Dumars rediscovered his shot with some cat-like drives. Dennis Rodman was all over the place, grabbing every rebound (he had all 10 Piston rebounds in the fourth quarter).
So the Pistons did what they had to do, defended the home turf, and now they go back to Chicago for Game 6. They seemed to get comfortable at the end of that fourth quarter, familiar with the shots of Johnson and Dumars and those Rodman Rebounds. Perhaps that will carry over into Chicago Stadium.
Just the same, if I were Chuck Daly I would kill all the air-conditioning in Vinnie’s house, wrap him in a rubber suit, and make him carry a portable heat lamp. Cook, baby. The Pistons are one win away from the rainbow.