PISTONS GIVE THEIR ALL, BUT CELTICS FIND A WAY

BOSTON — Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. To win in Boston Garden, where the angry fans are so close, so thunderous, so hot you feel as if they’re sweating inside your clothes — to win here is nothing short of miraculous anyway. But to lose this way? On a stolen pass by Larry Bird in the final two seconds, a pass he dished to Dennis Johnson for a lay-up that put a stake through the heart of every Detroit fan? Unbelievable.

And so believable. This is the Boston Garden. Here is a place that simply trembles with its basketball, where the likelihood of a call going your way is slim, at least if it’s going to change the game, at least if your uniform is anything but green. So here was Robert Parish reaching over Bill Laimbeer in the second quarter and jabbing him in the mouth, drawing blood, Laimbeer went to the floor, and nothing was called. Nothing.

“SIT DOWN, CHUCK!” screamed the fans at Pistons coach Chuck Daly as he flew into a rage, a justifiable rage. “SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP!”

Well. Did you expect compassion? Here? Where they ask for your next of kin at the door?

This was warfare, ugly and undeniable, and yet despite the final score, 108-107, despite the 3-2 lead that Boston brings back to Detroit for Game 6, the Pistons proved something here, they earned a slice of respect that had not been afforded them before. This was their guttiest game of the season.

Yes, this Eastern Conference final is going like the petals on a lover’s flower, Celtics win at home, Pistons win at home, she loves them, she loves them not. And yet this was not Game 1 or 2 of this series, where the Pistons seemed to be running upcourt, then sleepwalking once they got there. This was close and thrilling and breathtaking and in between the raucous fouls, there was excellence. From everywhere. A time to grow up Here was John Salley — who missed two dunks back in Game 2 — going up near the end of the third quarter, getting blocked by Parish, and, instead of shrinking away, grabbing the rejection and slamming it back through the hoop. Here was Dennis Rodman — who threw up two air balls on free throws the last time here — swooping on a fast break and banking in a shot. Guess who was growing up?

Here were the Celtics running off one of those third-quarter flourishes, like a tractor gone crazy, the kind that bury you alive. Bird dropped one in and Johnson dropped one in and there were steals and easy lay-ups and suddenly Boston was up by 12.

And yet Detroit came back, and believe me, in this place that is like climbing ice. Was Laimbeer ever angrier? Was Adrian Dantley ever more intent? Was Daly ever more animated? The coach waved his fist so hard at certain baskets you half-expected to hear the air break. These were not the wildly celebrating Pistons of the Silverdome, the Pistons who were criticized for dancing and laughing and whooping it up after nearly every basket. This was a group of players suddenly stone cold sober and facing the enemy and calling upon reserves that until this moment in the season, they never knew they had.

They came back. And they tied it up. And they went ahead. They led past the midway point in the final period, with five minutes left, four minutes left, and these were not the second- handers the Celtics were using. This was the top drawer — Bird, McHale, Ainge, Parish, Johnson. A wild, wild finish Was there ever a wilder quarter than that fourth? Every basket was like a hand grenade, with each team running to avoid the explosions. Daly was screaming on the sidelines, his voice gone, a memory, but

he was still screaming. The crowd was on its feet doing everything but jumping onto the court and tackling every player in blue. Bird was leading the Celtics, he scored basket after basket. The scoreboard was a race of inch worms, one-point lead, two-point lead, one-point lead.

And then, the inevitable. The principle that is as indigenous to this place as lobster is to the waters just a few miles away: The Celtics will find a way. Bird had been blocked driving in on what appeared to be the Celtics’ final offensive play — how often does that happen? — and the Pistons had this game won. But something happened. That pass by Isiah to Bill Laimbeer was oh, just a tad too lazy, and Bird stole it, and Johnson scored it, and it was over. Over. Unbelievable.

She loves them not, the Boston Garden. But this night, she broke the Pistons’ heart.

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