During last season's Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics, the Detroit Pistons were a collection of loose cannons, loose elbows and loose lips. And, predictably, their demise in a tense seven-game series was partly self-orchestrated. They were simply too young, too cocky and too unaware of what it takes to beat a veteran team like the Celtics.
This is an article from the June 6, 1988 issue
This season, however. Team Mayhem appears to have undergone major attitude surgery to prepare for the Eastern finals, again against the storied Celtics. And it has paid off. The Pistons stole Game 1 in Boston Garden 104-96 last Wednesday night, extended the Celtics to double overtime before losing 119-115 in Thursday's Game 2, then righted themselves on Saturday at the Pontiac Silverdome with a 98-94 victory.
But, as the Pistons no doubt realized, the Celtics are a tougher kill than Rasputin. In a ragged Game 4 Monday, Detroit missed 20 straight shots at one point in the first half, and the Celtics survived their own poor shooting for a tense 79-78 win that enabled them to regain the homecourt advantage from their formidable foe.
Now, understand that the Pistons are still not exactly Boy Scouts. It's an attitude adjustment, not a personality transplant. Through the first three games of the series, Detroit power forward Rick Mahorn engaged Kevin McHale, Artis Gilmore and even Larry Bird in brief shoving and/or jawing matches. But Piston pugnacity was not the dominant topic of the series. The Pistons actually thought their way through the green-and-white maze of Celtic experience and kept their emotions in check and their heads in the game plan.
Flash to the final minutes of Game 1. Dennis Rodman, he of the clenched fist and preening ways, puts the Pistons ahead by 96-89 with 1:30 left, all but clinching the first Detroit win in the Garden since December 1982. He starts to raise his fist, but teammate Isiah Thomas comes over and tells him to cool it. No one suffered the agony of last year's loss to the Celtics more than Thomas, who threw away a sure victory in Game 5, then dug himself into a public-relations hole after Game 7 by agreeing with Rodman's remarks about Bird's being overrated. The Pistons, none more than Thomas, wanted to leave a different impression this season.
"It's not something we sat down and spelled out before the series, because we had been talking about it, thinking about it, all summer and all through the season," said Thomas after scoring 23 points in Saturday's victory. "We knew that if we faced the Celtics again, we'd have to be different."
"Different in how we approached them. I'll tell you the best way to describe it. You have to be scared of them. Scared aware. Last year we were confident going into the series, but we really didn't know what it took to beat them. It was like we walked out of a dark closet into a bright room. We didn't have the attitude that if there is one second left and the Boston Celtics are nine points down, the Boston Celtics can somehow win."
Even with that attitude the Pistons got another object lesson in Celtic resilience in Thursday's Game 2, a contest high in tension and low in quality. Trailing 109-106 with just seven seconds left in the first overtime, the Celtics botched an inbounds play that was supposed to go to Bird. But McHale (whose .627 marksmanship from the floor in the first three games kept the Celtics alive; otherwise they shot .392) picked up the ball—"We call it our misdirection play," assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers joked later—and let fly with his right foot either on, or just behind, the three-point line. "The key to my success is never thinking, so I just let it go." said McHale, who had hit only one three-pointer in 21 attempts in his career. Swish! After a discussion among referees Jack Madden, Mike Mathis and alternate Bill Saar, the shot was ruled a three-pointer, which tied the score, and Boston went on to win in the second overtime.
Rather than being discouraged by their failure to take a 2-0 lead out of Boston, the Pistons put the pedal to the mettle in Game 3. Though they continued to have occasional lapses on offense, their defensive execution remained superb, particularly as it related to caging Bird, who through three games was a mortal .351 (20 of 57) from the floor.
To stop Bird, Detroit gave him several defensive looks. One moment he was being played by Adrian Dantley, who has the strength and smarts to muscle him away from the ball. The next moment it was the seven-foot John Salley, whose jumping ability (he had six blocks in the first three games) tested even Bird's distinctive rainbow shots. Then there was Rodman and his quickness.
"I think the fact we're able to change up on him has him frustrated," said Rodman. "We all do something a little different."
"They're doing a good job of jumping out and switching off," said Bird. The Pistons, particularly when Salley, Rodman and guard Joe Dumars are in the game, are one of the few teams in the NBA—maybe the only one—able to switch and rotate quickly enough to cover all the options. For example, they were smothering the hot-shooting McHale—"It looks like a posse coming at me," he said—and forcing him to give up the ball more than he likes. Other Celtics were having problems, too. Danny Ainge was 17 of 42 in the first three games, and the here-one-minute-gone-the-next play of Robert Parish (six points in Game 3) was another negative.
Meanwhile, the option-laden Piston offense was spreading the wealth. In the Game 1 win, the key man was Thomas, who finished with 35 points, nine of them in an economical fourth-quarter flourish (two three-point shots and a three-point drive) that finished off the Celtics. In Game 3, it was the oft-forgotten Dumars, who had 13 first-quarter points (29 for the game), and James Edwards, suddenly turned Celtic-killer. The 7'1" Edwards scored only 11 points, but nine of them came late in the third period when the Pistons needed a lift. Edwards's offensive success down low against Parish (he was 13 of 25 in the first three games) was a factor that the Celtics just did not count on.
Neither did they count on having to win a must Game 4. In that one, it was the Celtics who had to play scared.