BOSTON — Wait a minute. Time out. I thought the rule was, the sixth man has to come in off the bench. He can’t fly down from the rafters.

Here we were Thursday, in the middle of a perfectly fine Pistons-Celtics playoff game, and the Pistons had control, they were threatening to knock the Celts right out of the postseason by stealing a second game at Boston Garden
— and whoa! What’s this? Flapping down from the rafters? Landing at center court? Waddling around like a small forward — a very small forward?

“BIRD!” someone yelled.

Not the Bird.

A bird. A real bird. A pigeon, I believe. I don’t know how it got in, but there it was. On the court. Hanging around. Then it took off again, flew over the players — who ducked, knowing what pigeons can do — then landed again in the middle of the floor. Time was called. The players shook their heads.
. . .

A bird?

“TECHNICAL!” Pistons coach Chuck Daly screamed in frustration.
“TECHNICAL! TOO MANY MEN ON THE COURT!”

At the time, I thought he was joking. What could they call, technical fowl? But now I figure, maybe Daly wasn’t joking. Maybe he knew that when things like this happen at Boston Garden, the visiting team might as well call a cab.

After all, wasn’t this game about to fall to the Pistons, who led, 66-61, and were playing their best basketball of the afternoon? Weren’t the fans silenced and the Celtics looking vulnerable? And suddenly, flitter-flitter — and the mood was changed. Momentum vanished. The crowd began to laugh as the bird waddled around. Dennis Rodman watched it with his hands on his hips. Mark Aguirre stared as if he’d just seen a ghost. Kevin McHale sneaked up behind it, handed a towel to official Mike Mathis and told him to throw it over the creature.

“That’s how we did it as kids in the country,” McHale said later. “But this one got away. I guess city birds must be smarter than country birds.”

Or else . . . it wasn’t really a bird. Remotely familiar events recalled

“It was a remote-controlled bird, I bet,” John Salley said after the Pistons lost, 109-103. “I’m telling you. Red Auerbach was in his seat, working the switches from inside his cigar. He made it fly in. He made it fly out. Happens all the time here.”

“It was staged,” grumbled Vinnie Johnson. “I bet they keep that thing up in the rafters and let it out when they’re losing.”

“It was Auerbach,” said Scott Hastings. “I saw some pigeon poop on his shoulder.”

Remote-controlled? Staged? Pigeon poop? Well. It’s not as if strange things haven’t happened at the Garden before. Isn’t this the building with the leprechauns? Isn’t this the building where some invisible demon made Johnson and Adrian Dantley bang heads in Game 7? Isn’t this the building where the lights go out — sometimes for no reason — and where the visitors’ locker room, come playoff time, has its windows mysteriously locked and the heat mysteriously turned on?

So what’s so strange about a bird — considering birds were the theme of the afternoon: Larry Bird had come out of traction to play in this game. Now there were two Birds on the court. Which is worth one in the bush. I think. When that pigeon landed, the fans sang, “LAR-RY! LAR-RY!” I can understand that. I had a hard time telling them apart, too.

But this much was certain: When the little bird flew away, something had changed. The Celtics were revitalized. Their fans were charged up. Like Tinkerbell dropping pixie dust, that pigeon came and went. And from that point, the score went to Pistons 66, Celtics 63, then Pistons 68, Celtics 67, then Celtics 71, Pistons 70 — and Detroit never led again.

You could say the lead . . . flew away.

And the next thing you knew, the series was tied.

Hey! I’ll bet that bird and Larry Bird are related. Isn’t that right, Larry?

“Well, the first thing I thought when I saw it,” he said, “was to grab it and rip its head off.”

Maybe not. Pistons learn about the Birds and Dees

Now, understand. I am not crediting the bird with everything. After all, it didn’t take any shots. That was Dee Brown’s specialty. The Celtics’ backup point guard — and for the life of me, I can’t figure why he is the backup and Brian Shaw is the starter — went wild after the winged visitor left, scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter and almost single- handedly holding off any Pistons rally.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s rebounding edge, which had been the story of the game until you-know-what showed up, suddenly evaporated, the Celtics banged the boards, exploited the Pistons’ defense, scored 38 points in the final quarter, and won.

True, Isiah Thomas was out with a bad foot. And true, the Pistons still took one of two here and hold the home-court advantage in the best-of-seven series, with Games 3 and 4 at the Palace.

But it’s always something in this place. And it just goes to show you — the Boston Celtics are never dead until all their tricks are destroyed.

“I knew what it was as soon as I saw it,” Boston forward Derek Smith said, smiling. “It was the leprechaun in disguise. And I hope it follows us all the way to Detroit.”

I have an idea. Tell the security guards. Come Saturday, don’t let anybody into the Palace who wears a Celtics T-shirt or smokes a cigar.

Or has a beak.

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