INDIANAPOLIS — So there was Chuck Daly, standing in the hallway before the game, and a little kid in a Pacers jersey and yellow Pacers buttons saddled up next to him.
“You the Detroit coach?” he asked.
Daly said, “Yep.”
And the kid said: “Don’t beat us tonight, OK?”
Sorry, kid. Farewell, Indiana. Despite the dreams of this basketball state, the Pistons did to the Pacers Tuesday night what any defending champ should do to a team still sucking from the playoff bottle: put it to sleep and say good-night. Sweep.
See ya later.
“We came here to win,” said Isiah Thomas, shrugging at the obvious after the Pistons did indeed win, 108-96, to advance to the second round of the playoffs. “We didn’t come to enjoy the weather or see the sites, you know.”
We know. So do the Pacers. The Pistons grabbed this game by the neck in the second period, and tucked it away in the fourth. Thomas stole the ball and Dennis Rodman slammed the dunk and Bill Laimbeer threw in jumpers and that’s it. Outta here. The Pistons were following one of the cardinal rules of the NBA: never spend any more time in Indianapolis than you have to.
Of course, you can’t tell that to a Hoosier.
Prior to tip-off, fans rocked Market Square Arena, cheering for their first playoff game in three years and only their third in a decade. Blue and yellow streamers hung from the rafters. Music blared. All the players were introduced. The crowd — perhaps showing playoff naivete — even stood and waived white handkerchiefs in support. Memo to Indiana: bad symbolism.
Not that it mattered. Surrender was obvious. Before Thomas sizzled the nets (23 points), before John Salley continued his spring blossom, before the Pistons tossed in eight points in 42 seconds to close the first half (three steals, three lay-ups) this series was, for all intents and purposes, decided. No way Indiana gets a game against Detroit. Their day will come. But not this year.
“Are you already finished thinking about the Pacers?” someone asked Joe Dumars just a few minutes after the victory.
“We don’t play them anymore, do we?” he said.
One down. Detroit connects with Game 3 KO
Daly had predicted “an all-out war” for this game. It never materialized. Yes, there were double technicals called in the first minute of action, when Rodman and Detlef Schrempf did a little dance. But other than that, this was your basic basketball on basketball, which means the Pistons did it a little better, a lot deeper, and see ya later. Balance? All but one Piston scored in double figures. Dumars earned his pay chasing Reggie Miller around all night. Vinnie Johnson proved why he is an invaluable playoff weapon, coming alive during the fourth quarter. Salley continued his sudden gallop with 16 points in the first half. If he could learn to avoid fouls and hang onto rebounds instead of slapping them, he might get that $2.5 million contract on a silver platter.
Anyhow, in the end all the noise, all the clamor, all the Pacers’ homecourt hype was doomed to fade. This is the difference between champions and wanna-bes. The latter desires it; the former gets it done. So it was that during a loud and crazy fourth quarter, fans on their feet, waving, screaming, it was still the Pistons — particularly Thomas — making the key plays and getting the hoops, as calmly as if they were working in their basement.
“We don’t get rattled by noise,” said the captain. “We expect spurts like that. But we’re an opportunistic team. If we were boxers, we’d be counterpunchers. We jab, jab, jab, wait. . . . ” — he laughs — “and then we hit you real hard.”
The Pacers don’t wake up until next October.
All that’s left is who’s next
And three to go. The Pistons had forgotten this city by the time the plane left the runway. Next concern, Boston or New York. How many days rest? What plays are gonna work? How late can we sleep tomorrow?
“Are we the first team to advance this soon?” Mark Aguirre had asked in the locker room afterward. When he was told yes, that’s when he smiled. This is where defending champs take quiet pride. Doing it quickly. Getting to the real stage first.
It is a fascinating process, these NBA playoffs, like charting a singing career. You start on the Louisiana Hayride, you make it to the Grand Old Opry, and one day, if you’re really good, you play Carnegie Hall. You have to endure and learn from every level. It’s a season unto itself, complete with slumps and injuries and heroes and momentum shifts. The Pistons know this. The Pacers will learn it. Maybe by the time that kid in the hallway grows to be a teenager.
Daly put his experience in perspective: “After a while, all the hotel rooms and plane trips and arenas blend together. You just focus on the game at hand. There is no reason to look back in this league. . . . “
He paused and grinned. “Unless there’s something back there that will help you win tonight.”
Farewell, Indiana. Sorry, kid.