BOSTON — In the end, they were playing for their lives. This was more than basketball, this was deeper than a win or a loss. With two overtimes and a tapestry of magical, pressure-soaked basketball behind them, the Detroit Pistons were beyond hoops, beyond free throws. They were staring their very manhood in the eye.
“Who are these guys?” the weary Boston Garden crowd seemed to holler, as the Pistons came back time and time again in the angry heat of Game 2 in the Eastern Conference final. “Don’t they know they’re supposed to die? Don’t they know visitors don’t give the Celtics this hard a time? Who are these guys?”
These guys are the Detroit Pistons, who, in defeat, proved themselves a 100 percent bona fide NBA potential champion Thursday night — a night that will forever be wrapped in “what if . . . ” and “if only . . . ” But then, isn’t that what always happens when you play the Celtics? Double overtime? Three-pointers flying in? Players fouling out like chess pieces? Fans screaming themselves hoarse — the Boston Garden shaking as if Armageddon would come on the very next dribble? Who wants it? Who needs it? Who’s going to get it?
“What did you learn about your team tonight?” someone asked Bill Laimbeer in the locker room, after the Pistons had fallen, 119-115, in the most gut-twisting game in recent Pistons’ memory.
“We already knew,” he said softly. “We knew it’s all right here.”
He pointed at his chest.
“We know we have enough of it.”
Can there be any doubt? If nothing else can be taken from this defeat, can there be any doubt now that the Pistons belong every bit as much in these NBA championship rounds as the Celtics — or anybody else? Maybe once there was talk of lack of heart, divided players, selfish spirit. But that seems a very long time ago.
That talk now is of overtime — the final seven seconds of the first overtime to be exact — when the Pistons had a three- point lead, 109-106, and the Celtic mystique had its head in the noose. All Detroit needed to do was foul Boston, force the free throws, get possession, and, in all likelihood, win.
They never got the chance.
Kevin McHale took a bobbled feed from Larry Bird and launched a high-arching three-point attempt that had a green- devil’s spin all over it. Kevin McHale? The guy hadn’t made a three-pointer in four years. No way. No chance.
“HIS FOOT WAS ON THE LINE!” screamed Adrian Dantley, who was near the play.
“HIS FOOT WAS ON THE LINE!” screamed the rest of the Pistons. The officials conferred. There was bedlam, pandemonium; a two- pointer and the Pistons are still leading, a three-pointer and it’s tied.
“THREE! THREE! THREE!” sang the Garden crowd.
And of course, well. . . . You know by now. The officials stuck by their call, the game went to another overtime, and the Pistons finally went down, their ship full of holes, Laimbeer and John Salley fouled out with six apiece.
“If you could have one moment back from this game, what would it be?” someone asked Joe Dumars in the locker room afterward.
“A three-point lead with seven seconds left,” he said.
“You don’t believe they could do it again?”
“I’d take my chances.”
There will be other chances. This series is just tied, 1-1, which is better than many Detroiters hoped for coming in. You can focus on the picture of McHale’s shot swishing through the net, or Dantley’s missed free throw at the end of regulation, or Dumars’ missed jumper at the end of the first overtime.
“We had our chances to win,” Isiah Thomas admitted.
You can remember that or you can fill your scrapbook with these more promising vignettes: Vinnie Johnson, leaning, twisting, scoring 21 points, the Microwave is back; James Edwards, the backup of whom nobody expected much, rising to the occasion yet again, 18 points and some clutch free throws; Thomas, delivering another miracle three-pointer when the Pistons needed it most; the Detroit bench, a pep rally, a war bunker. “WE CAN WIN!” Laimbeer would scream. “NO EXCUSES!” Salley would scream. “ALL THE WAY!” Rickey Mahorn would scream.
You might say this is rose-colored-glasses talk. But remember where this all took place: the Boston Garden, where they ask for your next-of-kin upon entering. Two days ago, the Pistons hadn’t won here in nearly six years. This morning, they wake up with no fear of parquet floors, and a hungry feeling about the return to the Silverdome for Games 3 and 4.
“We really wanted this, no question, I won’t lie,” said Pistons coach Chuck Daly, his voice a mere rasp. “We could have really been in the driver’s seat. But now we have to go back and just keep playing hard. We’re not intimidated. We knew anybody can win in anybody’s building — and we proved that.”
“Don’t you think the Celtics feel the same way?” someone asked.
He allowed a smile. “I certainly hope so.”
On we go.
Pistons center Bill Laimbeer looks perplexed during a break in the action at Boston Garden Thursday.