PLAYING IT TOUGH IN THE EAST

After dropping two games in Boston, the Pistons drubbed the Celtics twice in Detroit to even their NBA playoff series
May 31, 1987

The Detroit pistons are a team of explosive charges. Detonate Isiah Thomas and duck. Put the match to Vinnie Johnson and get out of the way. Ignite Adrian Dantley and run for cover. That is the way they play, and that is the way they embarrassed the Boston Celtics over the weekend at the Pontiac Silverdome to tie the Eastern Conference NBA final at two games apiece.

Boston lost those two by a total of 44 points (122-104 and 145-119, the latter being a playoff record for points scored against the Celts), and there was nothing fluky about either Detroit victory. The Pistons made the Celtics look old and injured, which they are, as well as tepid and tentative, which they have never been before. "It was the Silverdome Mystique," said Thomas with a grin. It must have been something, for Sam Vincent, he of the much-maligned Boston bench, led Boston in scoring in each game with 18 points.

In the first half of Game 3 on Saturday, Detroit handed the ball to Dantley. Go ahead, Adrian. By halftime he had scored 25 points, and Detroit was off to a 73-53 lead it never lost. Never mind that Dantley didn't score a point in the second half; he had already blasted a crater in the Celtic terrain.

In the second quarter of Game 4, the Pistons spun the wheel and Johnson's number came up. All yours, Vinnie. He scorched the Celtics for 17 points, most of them on his improbable lean-in, splay-legged jumper, and Detroit had a 62-58 lead at the half. Third quarter? My ball again, said Dantley. He scored 10 points in the first four minutes as the Pistons built a 76-65 lead, which grew to 104-88 by the end of the period. Thomas (22 points) and Bill Laimbeer (20) also had their moments in the spotlight.

Teamwork has many facets, and one of them is knowing when to give the ball up and get out of the way. "With them, it seems that if one guy gets rolling, then another guy gets rolling," said Boston's Larry Bird, who never got rolling in either Game 3 or Game 4 (17 and 16 points, respectively).

Detroit's third-period surge on Sunday was so overpowering and deflating to the Celtics that at one point Boston's lineup consisted of Vincent, Darren Daye, Fred Roberts, Greg Kite and Danny Ainge, who wasn't supposed to be playing because of sprained ligaments in his right knee. Say this for K.C. Jones—he recognizes a lost cause when he sees one.

The loss on Saturday was understandable from the Celtic perspective: Boston had won Games 1 and 2 in Boston Garden (104-91 and 110-101) and was probably due for a letdown. The Celtics got only 21 minutes from Robert Parish (sprained left ankle) and zero minutes from Ainge. But on Sunday they had that gunslinger look in their eyes, particularly Bird, who brushed off Laimbeer's handshake at the beginning of the game. Just 24 hours earlier, Laimbeer and Bird had been ejected after a pileup under the Celtic basket. You shouldn't have roughed up Bird, came the warning from the Boston locker room—now he's mad. He may have been mad, but he was also relatively toothless on offense.

It was not just Bird, though, who failed to get untracked—it was the entire Celtic starting five. "We'll learn one thing from looking at these films," said Dennis Johnson after Game 4. "We'll see the Green Team [the bench] moving the ball, and we'll see the White Team [the starters] standing around."

And at the other end they'll see Dantley going around and through his defender, be it Bird (as it was on Saturday) or Kevin McHale (as it was on Sunday).

The weekend games in Detroit were a complete reversal of Games 1 and 2 in Boston, when the Celtics' find-the-open-man offense was vastly superior to the Pistons' find-the-hot-man offense. The teams' attacks are, in fact, a study in contrasts, which can be seen through the styles of the superstars, Bird and Thomas.

Johnson quarterbacks the Celtic offense, but when it bogs down, DJ usually gets the ball to Bird. Posted up on the right side, Bird begins his dribble, back to the basket, as a kind of subtle choreography unfolds around him. McHale cuts to the basket. Johnson fades to the other corner, seemingly out of the play but well within Bird's vision. Jerry Sichting spots up near the foul line. Parish glides toward Bird to set a pick. The point is, Bird has any number of options, not the least of which is a drive or a fallaway jumper for himself. "Covering them is always a scramble," says Detroit assistant coach Ron Rothstein.

The Piston offense, on the other hand, has been known to go into freeze-frame when Thomas has the ball. Lord knows Isiah can pass in traffic as well as anyone this side of Magic Johnson, but sometimes his movements are so unpredictable, so downright illogical, that his teammates can't figure out how to play off them. It becomes The Isiah Thomas Hour, a show that merits prime time only when his outside jumper is falling.

Which it was not doing in Game 1 in Boston Garden when Thomas shot 6 of 24 from the field. In Game 2, though, Thomas was brilliant, especially in the first half, when he scored 25 of his game-high 36 points, grinning at the Celtic defenders, chattering away like a magpie, driving to the basket, launching unerring outside jumpers. Incredibly, his act played well even in hostile Boston Garden. "Heck, even I enjoy Isiah's act," said McHale. But Thomas didn't have nearly enough help from his frontcourt, especially from Laimbeer, who scored only 2 points, and Dantley, who had only 6 of his 24 in the second half.

However, the Detroit offense is a thing of beauty when it's in full throttle, as it was in both weekend games. The Pistons fired on all cylinders, got everyone involved, and that's exactly what they need to do to be effective.

But did they also need to get rough to succeed against the Celtics? Jones thought they might. Before Game 1 he had shown his team a film clip of Laimbeer leveling Dominique Wilkins in the Pistons' semifinal series against Atlanta. The message was clear: Watch your backs. So it was really no surprise when a hockey game broke out in the fourth quarter of Game 3.

It began when Bird faked his defender, rookie Dennis Rodman, off his feet, and Laimbeer came over to help. Laimbeer pulled Bird to the floor, and all three players landed in a heap. Bird, who was already on record as uttering the immortal line, "We don't like him that good," began throwing punches while they were still tangled on the floor. The combatants were pulled apart but continued to shout insults at each other, until Bird, forever in search of the open man, suddenly flung the ball at Laimbeer, nailing him cleanly in the shoulder. "Just like all of Larry's passes," said Sichting later, "right on the money."

Bird and Laimbeer were ejected but later renewed their sparring in an exchange carried, courierlike, by reporters between the locker rooms.

Laimbeer: "Bird went up for the shot, and it looked like Rodman was going to undercut him. I grabbed hold of Larry to break my fall."

Bird: "Yeah, right, he was trying to break his fall. And when I threw the ball, I was just trying to get it to the ref."

Laimbeer: "I think he's a little better passer than that."

Finally, Bird, who initially didn't want to talk about the fight, upped the verbal ante: "He thinks he's tough. Let him come at me then. He waits for his teammates to help him, for the officials to protect him. Let everybody get out of the way, and let him come on in."

Who knows whether or not Laimbeer really had malice aforethought. When he says he was only trying to break his fall, though, he is straining credibility. "It was much the same as the Wilkins play in Atlanta, which I thought was a good way to end someone's career," said Jones. Daly had no comment on the fight. But he sized up the charged atmosphere and said of Game 4, "Tomorrow could be as tough a time as we've ever had getting a win."

He couldn't have been more wrong about that. What followed was the Pistons' 26-point laugher, just about as easy a time as they've ever had getting a win. But then, Daly could not have known that it would be Johnson's turn to go off, and Dantley's, and Thomas's, and Laimbeer's, all on the same wonderful, Celtic-concussing Sunday afternoon in the Silverdome.

Anyone got a match?

PHOTOMANNY MILLANDespite a sprained ankle, Kevin was McHale and hardy at home, scoring 21 in Game 1. PHOTOMANNY MILLANLaimbeer and Bird were ejected when push came to shove—and fisticuffs—in Game 3. PHOTOMANNY MILLANThomas provided the spark that ignited the Pistons' big offensive explosion in Game 4.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)