BOSTON — In the end, they simply showed too much courage to lose. It’s that simple. The gods who have been stealing these heartbreaking games from Detroit and handing them to Boston for the last two years must have finally said: “Enough. Even we can’t be this cruel.”

Take that. The Pistons beat the Celtics. In overtime. Go ahead. Rub your eyes. It’s still here. In black and white. Final score: 102-96. In overtime. The Pistons win. They lead this series, three games to two, and are coming home for Game 6.

Take that.

“Are they kidding?” the sold-out Boston Garden crowd seemed to say after Detroit pulled off perhaps the greatest comeback in the history of its franchise. “We don’t lose Game 5s. We don’t lose like this.”

They lost.

Here was everything that always happens except the ending. Here was overtime, Boston getting a shot by Larry Bird, missing, getting the rebound, missing again, getting the rebound — only to have Robert Parish commit a traveling violation. Here was Adrian Dantley going to the hoop, where he has been denied so many times this series, and making the basket and getting the foul. Here were the Celtics with the ball and less than a minute to go — and Jim Paxson commits an offensive foul.

Here was the Detroit bench, huddled like men in a frontline bunker, screaming at each other.

“REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE! NO LETUP! NO LETUP!”

They had learned all the lessons that bad luck can teach. All the moral reminders that defeat can show you. Now Chuck Daly was rasping in what was left of his voice, final instructions, final plays.

“This is where you always choke boys, remember that!” screamed a fan behind the Detroit bench.

Thanks for the reminder.

Take that.

No matter what happens in this series from now on, let it be known right here that this was the night in which the Pistons’ belief in themselves finally matched their basketball potential. They had every reason to lay down and die, every reason to fold — heck, half of us were expecting it, right?

Instead, they showed remarkable faith, coming back from a 16- point deficit to steal this thing the way the Celtics have stolen it from them so many times.

Instead, it was Isiah Thomas (35 points) being simply brilliant, on this, the anniversary of “BIRD STOLE THE BALL.” Was this sweet revenge? Thomas was the clutch player, he made baskets from everywhere, he made baskets when nobody else seemed to want to take the shot. If the small man with the angel face was owed something for all the heartache he has endured as leader of this Pistons team, then this was his payback night.

“He’s supposed to throw it away,” the stunned Garden crowd seemed to say, as the final seconds ticked away in near-silence. “He’s supposed to . . . “

Yeah, yeah. We know all about it.

Take that.

What a performance! Could this really be the same team that couldn’t make a shot on its home court in Game 4? It is. The difference now is that the little green demons no longer dance in their brains. Win or lose, this series is now basketball, not a head game.

The third quarter was perhaps the Pistons’ finest in this series so far. Here were the Celtics, shovels in hand, ready to bury them, and the Pistons kicked and scratched and clawed until they were on their feet. This was not the Celtics having an off- period, allowing the Pistons back in the game. No. The Celtics were as hot as they could be, and the Pistons matched them, basket for basket, until they finally wrestled the momentum away and began to make headway. In the closing seconds of the period, Thomas stole an inbounds pass, poked it to Dennis Rodman, who fed it back, and Thomas tossed in a short jumper. Two points. Thomas stole the ball? How does that sound?

The Pistons bench was suddenly alive; all the emotion that had been lacking in the first half was suddenly blazing, spitfire, as if this was a chance to finally prove that the bad stuff doesn’t always have to happen to Detroit.

And in the end, that’s exactly what they proved. The Pistons have now won three of these games on paper, two more in many people’s minds, and they are coming home for the next one. They have looked exactly where they had to look to find the answer to this devilish puzzle — inside themselves.

OK. Be calm. This was certainly no guarantee. Either team could still win the series. But for one moment, one act, one chapter of this Russian novel that is the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons landed a real blow to the old green devil, smack between the eyes.

Take that. CUTLINE Bill Laimbeer, left, goes up against the Celtics’ Larry Bird for a rebound during Wednesday’s game.

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