In game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, the two-time defending NBA champion Detroit Pistons were right where they have always felt most comfortable: on the ropes. Playmaker Isiah Thomas was hobbled by a sore right wrist and a pulled left hamstring. The Pistons weren't adjusting to the Hawks' weird defensive schemes, which often left a guard overmatched by an Atlanta center. And in Game 4 three days earlier, Atlanta had beaten Detroit, 123-111, by scoring the most points the Pistons had surrendered in postseason play since 1986. So naturally, before 21,454 loyal subjects at The Palace in Auburn Hills, the Pistons gathered themselves behind Thomas and reduced the Hawks to feathers, 113-81, to move into the second round against the Boston Celtics. Said Detroit guard Joe Dumars afterward, "In big games, it's amazing how perfect we can play."
Sometimes it's as if the Pistons feel the need to starve themselves simply to see how hungry they can get. "This was a test of whether or not we wanted to compete for the championship," said Detroit center Bill Laimbeer. The Pistons' resounding victory left little doubt about their desire, and it whetted their appetites for the archrival Celtics. "We're always ready to play them," said forward John Salley. "It's a love-hate relationship."
Forgotten for the moment in the glow of Sunday's win was that the Pistons are a lame-duck dynasty. Whatever their ultimate fate in the playoffs, as many as half a dozen personnel changes are looming: Salley will become a free agent after the season; forward Dennis Rodman might be traded; another forward, Mark Aguirre, will most likely be shopped around, though he is not expected to fetch much; and even Thomas has been talking about spending the remainder of his career in the warmer climes of Miami. Laimbeer has said he will retire rather than accept a trade, which leaves Dumars, the closest thing the Pistons have to an untouchable.
All of this might have tempted some of the Pistons to pack it in early. No way. Detroit harassed the Hawks into 29.7% shooting from the field on Sunday, with Rodman holding forward Dominique Wilkins to a 4-for-18 afternoon. Said Aguirre, "You look around and don't know who wants it the most. Every guy wants it so bad he'll probably give up a limb to get it."
May 12, 1991
Thomas, for one, could ill afford such a sacrifice, encumbered as he was by a soft cast on his right arm and a wrap on his left leg. On Jan. 29 the wrist was operated on; the hamstring pull took place in the second half of Detroit's 103-91 Game 3 win. In the Game 4 loss last Thursday, Thomas took only six shots, making one. But on Sunday, he came out popping, and when Atlanta made a modest second-period run, Thomas set up or scored 10 straight Detroit points to build the lead back to 55-42. He finished with 26 points and 11 assists, and insisted that he never entertained thoughts that this could have been his last game in a Piston uniform.
The Hawks had served notice that they weren't at all sentimental about the waning Detroit dynasty by winning Game 1—in Detroit, no less—103-98. Atlanta coach Bob Weiss, an amateur magician who can balance a fork on a toothpick, resorted to trickery of sorts, jump-switching on Detroit's screens out high so that whenever a Piston guard used a screen he would be confronted by a Hawk big man. That hocus-pocus made Detroit's outside game disappear; its vaunted three-guard rotation of Thomas, Dumars and Vinnie Johnson was a combined 12 for 37 from the floor.
The Pistons adjusted to that stratagem in Game 2 and squared the series with a 101-88 blowout. But two days later in Atlanta, the Hawks roared to a 46-29 lead midway through the second quarter, and Detroit appeared doomed. Only Johnson, scoring 15 first-half points, kept the Pistons from being blown out of the arena.
With his team trailing 56-44 at half-time, Detroit coach Chuck Daly scrawled two words across his blackboard: POISE and FRANTIC. The Pistons found the former when Daly opened the second half by putting Edwards, who had been bothered by a lower back strain, and the rest of last year's starting unit on the floor together for the first time in a month. The Hawks became the latter when they reverted to their self-destructive, one-on-one tendencies. While being double-teamed, Wilkins tried to carry too much of the offense, and his forced, errant shots—he went 8 for 23—led to numerous buckets for Detroit, which won 103-91. "Our movement wasn't there, we weren't fluid," Wilkins said afterward. "We got too tight at halftime. If ever there was a team that was too ready to play, it was us."
Perhaps sensing another Hawk collapse, only 9,854 fans showed up at the Omni for Game 4. But Weiss pulled something else out of his sleeve. Despite having been outrebounded in each of the first three games, he leaned heavily on a three-guard attack. With 5'7" Spud Webb pushing the ball rapidly upcourt, his backcourt running mate, Doc Rivers, repeatedly found himself open to squeeze his shots off before the defense was set. Rivers finished with 34 points. The quicker Hawks actually wound up outrebounding Detroit, 51-42, and got 19 second shots. By taking advantage of the open-floor mismatches—and two fourth-quarter technicals assessed to Thomas and Rodman—Atlanta also outscored the Pistons 44-14 at the free throw line.
But what made the Hawks' triumph especially sweet was that two graybeards, 33-year-old guard Sidney Moncrief and 36-year-old center Moses Malone, played like greyhounds. Moncrief saved 12 of his 23 points for the last five minutes of the fourth quarter. Malone, meanwhile, pulled down 11 rebounds. Like Detroit, Atlanta is probably heading for an off-season of rebuilding, and Malone will become a free agent. But against Detroit, he showed flashes of his old. stubborn form.
The Hawks spent Saturday hunched over their Game Boys in the Atlanta airport as rain held up their flight for four hours. Meanwhile, at the Pistons' practice at The Palace that afternoon, the desired sense of urgency settled in. "Concentrate," Laimbeer exhorted his teammates. "A free throw could win it." Rodman was pleased when he glanced around the locker room before Sunday's game. "We had that look in our eyes that could burn a hole into the wall," he said.
Finally focused, Detroit reverted to the basic style of ball that twice made it a champion, and stuck with it. When the Hawks went to a smaller lineup, Daly chose not to downsize in response, and he abandoned his double-teaming defense on Wilkins for more direct pressure. Rodman not only took care of Wilkins by himself but swept away 20 rebounds as well, and seven Pistons scored in double figures. "In games like this, we cover for each other really well," said Dumars. At the suggestion that his club might have approached Game 5 as sort of a last stand, Daly rolled his eyes. "It's just business as usual," he said.
Of course, Boston figured to be much less likely than Atlanta to let Detroit off the ropes. "Are we vulnerable?" asked Thomas. "Yes. The question is, Are we vulnerable enough?"