When it’s time to win, you forget about the talk. You forget about trade rumors. You forget about arguments and reputations. You get dressed, you hit the floor and you try to be the magic. You try to be the man. It was the feeling every Piston had Monday night, walking out to face his destiny: I can be the man. I am ready to be the man. Teamwork, yes. Defense, sure. But when the spotlight shines, the man always wants the ball.

Here was the man Monday night. Here was Mark Aguirre. From the right side. From the left side. From the middle. One long arching jumper after another. Swish. Swish. Triple swish. Mark Aguirre. The same one they whisper about in trade rumors. The same one who had that spat with Chuck Daly a few weeks ago. That same one who sometimes makes faces that suggest a man with severe gas pains. Mark Aguirre. The man. How good was he? On a night when the Pistons needed a shooter the way Don King needs a barber, Aguirre took that basketball and went to places he has never been before, not as a Piston. By the time the night ended, he had 34 points, a career high here. Thirty- four points?

Off the bench?

“For a while there, I thought he had a Mavericks uniform on underneath that jersey,'(at) Scott Hastings joked, after watching Aguirre lead the Pistons past the Celtics, 104-97, tying this series at two games apiece and keeping their dreams intact at least one more night. “I’ve seen Mark do some amazing things with the basketball over the years. We needed him tonight. He came through.”

How much a relief was this? Imagine a man in the desert, after two weeks, with no water — and the last thing he ate was a bag of salty pretzels. How much relief? That much relief. The Pistons, always defensive specialists, were on the verge of becoming The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. The fans were applauding when the ball hit the rim.

Aguirre didn’t need the rim Monday night. He shot 16 times. He sank 11.

Thirty-four points.

Off the bench? Moody? Then he’s a Piston

“I knew I was gonna get the ball a lot tonight,” Aguirre said. “Before the game Joe (Dumars) said to me, ‘You’re gonna get it.’ And at halftime, Isiah
(Thomas) said to me, ‘You got to shoot it.’ ”

Hey. Those two tell you to shoot, you shoot. So here was Aguirre entering the game with less than three minutes left in the first quarter. He scored four quick points. Then the second quarter: running jumper, a jumper from the corner, free throws, lay-up, jumper. Ten more points.

And then the third. He sat on the bench. He watched the Pistons try to shake the Celtics the way they shake so many teams in the second half. It wasn’t working. In he came, with less than five minutes left in the period. Bang. A three-point jumper. Bang. Another three-point jumper. Hey look, Ma! We’re scoring points. Free throws. More free throws. Another jumper. Ten more points. And in the fourth quarter — take a guess. Ten more points. Thirty-four total. In just 29 minutes. For all you math majors, that’s better than a point per minute. It was also nearly a third of the Pistons’ total offensive output Monday night.

From the bench?

Wait. Let’s talk a moment about Aguirre and this team. The out-of-town press shake their heads at Aguirre, says, ‘=Not him again. We remember him from Dallas.” They make faces. They hold their noses. I don’t know. They must have seen a different Aguirre all those years. He can be moody, sure, but on the Pistons, that hardly makes him unique. In this town, he has rarely had any incidents. He has accepted sitting as a role player without complaint. “I know sometimes Dennis is playing so well, they can’t get me my minutes.” He has mostly been a gentleman about this, and that recent spat with Daly was not as big a deal as everyone says.

“Hey, compared to the stuff that went on in Dallas,” Aguirre said, laughing, “that was nothing. You forget where I came from, man.”

Even if no one else wants to. Right player, right time

I guess the best thing you can say about Aguirre is that since he arrived here, the Pistons have won two championships. Whether he helped through contributions, through chemistry, through getting rid of Adrian Dantley, who knows? But Monday night, he did it with shooting.

“Do you have a feeling before a game like this?” someone asked him.

“Not before,” he said, “but once you get out there, and you let a few go off your fingertips, you know it’s there. Then you just want it all the time.”

He got it. As a result, the Pistons stay alive in this chase. It was not easy. And all is not well. How many nights can they hope to win without Isiah playing? How many nights can they win when at least one of their guards seems to be shooting at another basket? This was an evening where the whole city held its breath, wondering whether this was the game when the whole wonderful championship ride came to an end. We have had nights like this before. And we are only in the second round. I have a feeling there will be more before we are through.

Let them come. Aguirre was not the only hero Monday night. Dumars was magnificent, playing all 48 minutes, scoring, driving, banking one lay-up after another. Dennis Rodman, the Defensive Player of the Year, grabbed 18 rebounds. He was, as usual, a machine.

But what the Pistons needed most was a scorer on this night, and they got it big time from a guy who seems to invoke as many whispers as accolades. Personally, I give Aguirre credit. When it’s time to win, you put that petty stuff aside. You want to be the man, you step forward. You do something special. Like scoring 34 points . . .

. . . off the bench?

“If I were giving out a game ball tonight,” Pistons coach Chuck Daly said,
“I would give it to Mark.”

He’d probably shoot it, from 20 feet.

All net, I’ll bet.

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