PISTONS? THEY NEVER TAKE THE EASY WAY OUT

BOSTON — The sneaker sat in the paint, all by itself, as if it had fallen from a shelf. The man who had been wearing it, Isiah Thomas, was on his back now, a few feet away, grabbing the foot with the sock on it, writhing in pain. Even here, 800 miles away, you could hear the groans from Detroit: “Oh, nooo. Now what?”

Now what, indeed. Thomas had been squaring up to defend a fourth-quarter drive by Dee Brown, and Brown went into him, came down on his shoe, which stayed put, as if nailed to the floor, as Thomas hurtled out of it. He did not get up. The other Pistons rushed across the floor. Chuck Daly cursed.

“I picked up Isiah’s shoe and just tossed it,” Dennis Rodman would say afterward, “I turned to Bill Laimbeer and said, ‘Can you believe our luck? I mean, can you believe it? It’s always something.’ “

So now we have it: a real Detroit-Boston series. One in which bones ache and muscles throb and the stars are hurting and whoever has the most guts will win. Larry Bird never showed up for Game 1. Bad back. Will he play in Game 2? And who knows what we’re in for with this latest Thomas injury? Isiah seems to be running out of body parts. Wrist. Hamstring. Foot. They called it a
“sprain.” They said “day-to-day.” And what does that mean?

It means this: We are looking a lot of “Can he play, Chuck?” and “Will he play, Chuck?” and “How do you feel, Isiah?” And just once you wish the Pistons could do something easy. But then they wouldn’t be the Pistons, would they? Defense looked like old Pistons

And they sure looked liked the Pistons Tuesday night. It was in their eyes. It was in their box score. Did you see those numbers? Pistons 86, Celtics 74? What is that, the third quarter results? What is that, the Boston College-Holy Cross final? 86-75? The Pistons’ total you can explain very easily: They shot like hell. In and out. Off the rim. Sometimes not even hitting the rim. They actually won this thing shooting 38 percent. They have any kind of accuracy, the game is a blowout.

That’s because the Celtics’ score — their lowest in the playoffs since Dwight Eisenhower was president — can also be explained by the Pistons: It was defense. No. It was DEEEEEEFENSE! It was body-on-body, face-in-your-armpit, switching, rotating, slapping, blocking, boxing-out defense. So effective were the Pistons in covering their men Tuesday night that they seemed to be computer-controlled, little blips on some radar screen.

Not that they didn’t have instructions. Let me give you an idea of what it’s like to sit behind the Pistons’ bench:

“POST UP! POST UP!

“ISO! ISO! ISO!

“WATCH DEE! WATCH DEE!

“WATCH McHALE! McHALE!”

“ISO! ISO!”

“HELP! HELP!”

And that’s just one play. Chuck Daly orchestrated this thing like a drill sergeant yelling at a camp full of new recruits. Literally every defensive move seemed to be shouted out by the coach or one of his assistants or one of the bench players. Every step. Every switch. That’s a lot of yelling.

But it worked. The Pistons and Celtics looked like two worms wrestling. “I thought we had a great game defensively,” Daly said afterward, his voice understandably hoarse. “Our rotation was excellent. It’s our style. Low scoring . . .

“Of course, I’d like to shoot a little better.”

Hey. You can’t have everything. Garden throws out unwelcome mat

But they’ll take the win. They’ll take home-court advantage. And the best part of it? They were ready to play from the opening tap. No more Atlanta doldrums. No more regular season “Are we here tonight or are we home playing Nintendo?” performances. These were the old Pistons, screaming at each other during time-outs, gritting their teeth on defense.

Personally, I think it’s this building. You walk into the visitors’ locker room here in Boston Garden, you see the windows are locked shut. Then someone mysteriously turns on the heat, and you begin to sweat. You hang your clothes on wooden pegs, stare at the gray cinder-block walls. There is one toilet. Two shower heads. The tile floor is dirty.

And the Pistons love it. It makes them feel hated. Unwelcome. It makes them feel . . . ready.

“The Atlanta series was a question mark for us,” Laimbeer said after grabbing 12 rebounds. “The question was: Do we want to win another championship? I think the answer was a resounding yes. From here on in, you won’t see any problem concentrating. We want it.”

It was good to hear that kind of talk. And it was good to see this kind of effort (even though, admittedly, with Bird out, the Celtics should not beat the Pistons). Of course it was not good to see Isiah heading for the hopsital.

“He’ll be all right,” Laimbeer said.

“We can win without Isiah,” said Mark Aguirre.

“What did you think when you saw him go down and saw that sneaker just lying there in the middle of the floor?'(at) someone asked John Salley, always the optimist.

“Me? Well, being from Brooklyn, I thought about running out there and grabbing it.”

As I said, it’s back to normal with the Pistons.

Which means: Hold your breath.

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