BOSTON — It was hell, as usual. And the Pistons were the guests of honor.

It was fans yelling “CHOKE!” and Mark Aguirre screaming at the press table
“THEY’RE CALLING EVERY F—— CALL AGAINST US, EVERY ONE!” It was Larry Bird suddenly coming back from an injury — he always does, doesn’t he? — to bring the house down with long jumpers. It was a blown call that gave the ball back to the Celtics for a tying jump shot. It was Detroit shaking its head in disbelief. It was Piston defense smothering Celtic offense, then Celtic defense smothering Piston offense, it was bodies flying and whistles blowing and heat and sweat and noise, oh, God, the noise, freight train noise, atomic noise, fans banging their feet until it felt like the Garden would come apart at its concrete seams.

Game 5.

The only way to survive is having been through it before.

“Were you frightened when they came back to tie it?” someone would ask Chuck Daly after this one was over.

“I spend my life in fright,” he would sigh.

Especially when you come here. This is no place for the squeamish, not Boston Garden, not in the fifth game of a playoff series between Celtics and Pistons. Something happens. Some sort of mystical fog settles over this place and suddenly, the calendar melts, time disappears. Suddenly, it is 1988. Or 1987. The same humid insanity, the same pandemonium. The same venom spitting from the mouths of Boston fans. The same killer look in the eyes of the Pistons.

Game 5.

The only way to survive is having been through it before.

High drama can be expected

And the Pistons have, more times than they want to remember. “It seems like sooner or later, there’s a big dramatic moment in Boston Garden for you guys, doesn’t it?” Joe Dumars was asked before this game started.

He smiled and nodded, as if he were thinking the same thing. “You,” he said, “hit it right on the head.”

And so it was that in that final quarter, when the roof threatened to fall down on Detroit and its third championship team, when everything seemed to be tilted on an angle toward the green bench, when other teams might have wilted, the Pistons stood there, like Rocky in the final round against Apollo Creed, taking punch after punch and still standing. “We,” Vinnie Johnson would say, “have been through this before.”

They saw a 18-point third quarter lead shrink to 13 points, then nine points, then four, then two. Then Larry Bird turns to the basket with less than four minutes left in the game, he fires over Dennis Rodman, bang! Tie game. The Garden is about to collapse. And what happens. . . . ?

What happens is what makes this Pistons team one of the most miraculous group of athletes to watch. Anywhere. Especially here.

Here was Bill Laimbeer, firing from the top of the key to re-establish the Piston lead. And Laimbeer again, from the corner, high archer — good! And Laimbeer again, off balance jumper over Larry Bird — good! Call him slow. Call him mean. But never forget he was the guy on the other end of that Isiah Thomas pass four years ago, the one Bird stole to break the Pistons heart and their season. Rattled? Laimbeer rattled? In Game 5?

“That’s my job,” he said nonchalantly, after the Pistons held off the Celtic 116-111 to take a 3-2 lead in this series heading back to Detroit. “I’m supposed to hit open shots. It doesn’t really matter that they were the last ones..”

Don’t believe it. He loved it. The same way his teammates loved when Joe Dumars — “the iron horse” Chuck Daly calls him — planted his feet and took two offensive charges to get the ball back in the final minutes. The same way they loved it when Mark Aguirre sank two free throws in the closing seconds to ice the game. The same way they loved John Salley blocking shots as if his new contract was inside the ball, and Vinnie Johnson hitting leaning jumpers as if the last light of his life was inside that rim.

“Game 5,” Johnson said. “Man!” Victory was a masterpiece

Man. When your heart stops beating, you may want to circle Wednesday on your calendar. This truly was a masterpiece win for the Pistons — not simply because they went most of the game without Isiah Thomas (who bravely played, but did not score). Did you see that first half? Sixty-five points? The Pistons? The guys who were happy if the ball hit the rim a few days ago?

That is what’s so incredible. Every time it seems their old act is about to let them down, they reinvent themselves. They knew, deep down, that it was win this series in six or maybe likely lose it in seven. So, they came out a scoring machine Wednesday night, and held off a 55-point first-half effort from the Celtics. The Pistons usually lose high-scoring games. Usually.

“Everybody did something tonight,” Daly said. “I told them at halftime, I love Boston but I really don’t want to come back.”

They might not have to.

After all, they’ve played a few Game 6’s, too.

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