TYPICAL GAME 5 PATH: TO HELL — AND BACK

BOSTON — It was hell. As usual.

It was fans yelling “CHOKE!” and Mark Aguirre screaming at the press table, “THEY’RE CALLING EVERY F—— CALL AGAINST US, EVERY ONE!” It was Larry Bird coming back from an injury — he always does, doesn’t he? — and the Celtics rising from the ashes like some ghost in the final reel of a horror movie, swinging an ax at the big Detroit lead, hypnotizing the refs into blowing an out-of-bounds call. It was the Pistons screaming and holding their heads, it was bodies flying and whistles blowing and heat and sweat and noise, oh, God, the noise, freight train noise, atomic noise, fans banging their feet until it felt like the Garden would come apart at its concrete seams.

It was two words:

Game 5.

The only way to survive is having been through it before.

“Were you scared when they came back to tie it?” someone asked Chuck Daly after the Pistons absorbed a machine-gun attack in the fourth quarter Wednesday night and hung on to beat Boston, 116-111, to take a 3-2 lead in this playoff series. “Were you frightened?”

He sighed. “I spend my life in fright.”

Especially when you come here. This is no place for the squeamish, not the

Garden, not in the fifth game of a playoff series between Celtics and Pistons. Something happens in Game 5’s. Some sort of mystical fog settles over the building. Suddenly, the calendar melts, time disappears. Suddenly, it is 1988. Or 1987. Or 1991. What’s the difference? It’s the same humid insanity, the same deafening pandemonium. Game 5. Venom spitting from the mouths of Boston fans. Game 5. The pass Bird stole from Isiah.

Game 5.

The only way to survive is having been through it before.

Pistons could have died — but didn’t

And the Pistons have, thank you. Several times. So it was in that final quarter, when everything seemed to be tilted on a Boston angle, when other teams might have wilted, Detroit stood there, like Rocky in the final round against Apollo Creed, taking punch after punch and still standing. “We knew,” James Edwards shrugged, “they would make a run.”

A run? How about a buffalo stampede? The Pistons saw an 18-point third-quarter lead shrink to 10, then eight, then four, then two. Then Bird turned to the basket with less than four minutes to go in the game, he fired over Dennis Rodman, bang! Tie score, 100-100. The Garden exploded.

“LAR-RY! LAR-RY! LAR-RY!”

What a perfect time for a visitor to die. And yet, what happened instead? What happened is what makes this Pistons team one amazing group of athletes. What happened was they found a way. They found somebody. Mostly, in the final minutes, they found Bill Laimbeer, firing from the top of the key to re- establish the Pistons’ lead. And Laimbeer again, from the corner, high archer
— good! And Laimbeer again, off-balance jumper — good! Call him slow. Call him mean. But never forget he was the guy on the other end of that Thomas pass four years ago, the one Bird stole to break the Pistons’ heart. Rattled? Laimbeer? In Game 5?

“Hey, that’s my job,” he said nonchalantly. “I’m supposed to hit open shots. It doesn’t really matter that they were the last ones.”

Don’t believe it. He loved it. The same way his teammates loved when Joe Dumars — “the iron horse,” Chuck Daly calls him — not only scored 32 points, but planted his feet and took two offensive charges in the final minute to get the ball back. The same way they loved it when Mark Aguirre sank two free throws with 16 seconds left to ice the game. The same way they loved John Salley blocking shots as if his new contract was inside the ball, and Vinnie Johnson hitting leaning jumpers as if someone waved a wand and he was 10 years younger.

“Game 5,” Johnson said. “Man!”

Who knows? Maybe someone did.

Pistons do whatever it takes

That’s the way it is here. You have to expect it. Still, when your heart stops beating, you may want to circle Wednesday on your calendar. This truly was a masterpiece win for the Pistons — not simply because they did it here, in the house of horrors, and not simply they went most of the game without Isiah Thomas (who bravely played, but did not score). No. There were other things. Like that first half. Sixty-five points? The Pistons were happy to hit the rim a few days ago.

That’s what is so incredible. Every time their old act is about to let them down, they reinvent themselves. And there they were Wednesday trading baskets with Boston, running and gunning like something out of a Paul Westhead dream. Sixty-five points? When was the last time Detroit did that in a big playoff game?

Hey. If that’s what it takes. The Pistons knew, deep down, that it was win this series in six games or likely lose it in seven. They have to score to win? They score to win.

And now the series is back in their hands. Like longshoremen, they came in, did the job, and punched out. No nerves. No screwups. Game 5. The only way to survive it is having been through it before.

“I told them at halftime, I love Boston,” Daly said, “but I really don’t want to come back.”

They may not have to.

After all, they’ve played a few Game 6’s, too.

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