Before any of the other stuff comes into play, let's establish one important fact. This series is tied at two games apiece. So many weird things happened in this Back To The Future game that it would be a simple matter to overlook the ramifications of this truly bizarre encounter. But there are no style points in the NBA playoffs. You score more points than the other guy, you win the game. Fortunately, we have a Kevin McHale around to get a handle on this macabre afternoon of NBA basketball.
"Like I always say," McHale chirped, "if you're only gonna score 79, it's better to hold them to 78." Yup, no misspoken words there. The Boston Celtics tied the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals yesterday afternoon with a 79-78 triumph over the Detroit Pistons in the Silverdome, an anti-basketball edifice that doesn't deserve better basketball to start with. "We face a three-game series," said a somber Detroit coach Chuck Daly. "(The Celtics) have survived another scare, just like in the Atlanta series."
But 79-78? Is Ike still in the White House? Wonder what new mischief Lucy Ricardo will be cooking up at the Club Tropicana. Can't wait to see where John Cameron Swayze hopscotches around for headlines tonight. 79-78? The last time the Celtics won a playoff game by scoring 79 points was on March 21, 1954 (when the Celtics beat the Knicks by the same score), or 415 playoff games ago. 79-78? Isn't that a Denver-San Antonio halftime score?
Moreover, the game ended as Celtics-Pistons close games seem destined to end -- in controversy. The major question at the conclusion was whether Robert Parish goaltended a Joe Dumars jumper as the buzzer sounded. Neither Darell Garretson nor Ed Rush thought so. No other opinions mattered. Detroit had a full eight seconds to go for the winning basket following a miss-one, make-one trip to the line by Dennis Johnson, who was foolishly fouled by Isiah Thomas a long way from the hoop ("We were going for a steal," explained Daly). The ball was inbounded from the left sideline to Isiah, who was guarded by Danny Ainge.
The Celtics had a foul to give, but Ainge chose not to give it. Larry Bird abandoned Bill Laimbeer to double-team Thomas, and the Detroit floor general gave it up to Laimbeer (a game-high 29 points), who was stationed straightaway in three-point territory. He passed up the shot and fed Dumars, who had flashed into the lane, then took a contested jumper over an onrushing DJ. The shot was short. Parish grabbed the 13-footer as the buzzer sounded. He later held his hands about 10 inches apart and said it was that much short. Dumars said it wasn't goaltending. Laimbeer said it was, but that "
Parish does that all the time, and he's very good at it." Replays were, as usual, inconclusive. The Pistons have now lost two excruciating games in this series, but in neither have they been deserving of much sympathy. On Thursday night, they missed 10 of 32 second-half free throws. Yesterday they were pathetic offensively in both the first and fourth periods, bookending 10-point quarters around 26 in the second quarter and 32 in the third, when they changed a 10-point halftime deficit (46-36) into a 68-60 lead entering Period 4.
How bad was Detroit? Well, after Laimbeer hit a right baseline jumper to make it 8-4 (7:55 of the first quarter), the Pistons missed an official total of 20 consecutive shots. Yeah, well how bad was Boston? The Celtics won this vital game while making eight field goals and shooting 29 percent in the second half. While Detroit was going 0 for 20, the Celtics were a mere 5 for 13 and were able to construct nothing larger than a 14-point lead (37-23, 41-27) despite making four second-quarter three-pointers (three by Ainge, one by Johnson).
"At the half," said Daly, "I was ecstatic. We were only 10 down (46-36) after missing 20 straight. They should have been up by 25." As you might expect, each side credited the other team's defense for its offensive problems. There is no denying that we may be seeing a new level of mutual defensive intensity. But 79-78? On this much, everyone agreed: The first minute and a half of the fourth quarter was crucial. That's when Bird came back, after sitting out the final 6:41 of the third period in foul trouble, to score the first 7 points of the final period. Things started on a positive note for the Celtics with a 24-second violation on the Pistons. Bird responded with a broken-play left-wing three-pointer. Adrian Dantley turned it over, and Bird nailed a 14-footer. Vinnie Johnson missed, and Bird took it to the hoop for two free throws, making it 68-67, Pistons.
"Yeah, Bird was hot," said Laimbeer. "But where were we on the other end? We came out with no life. We were dead." The largest spread in the remainder of the game was Detroit's 4-point lead of 71-67. The Celtics erased that with a little run of 6-0 for a 73-71 lead (7:24 remaining). Detroit regained the lead at 75-74 on a Thomas jumper (3:44). The game was tied at 76 when Laimbeer, who had scored half his team's 36 intermission points, tapped in a miss by Dumars (1 for 10). But DJ took a Bird feed and calmly swished a foul line jumper, tying the game at 78 with 1:13 remaining. Next came a fateful Detroit possession. Good Boston defense put Dumars in a right-corner pickle as the shot clock was winding down and, with two seconds left before a violation, he called for a 20-second timeout. When play resumed, a Dantley right-corner inbounds alley-oop feed to John Salley went directly into the basket for a seldom-seen turnover.
At least that was the official call. Salley's version was that he touched the ball. If that's true, the basket should have counted. With 26 seconds left, DJ missed a left baseline leaner, but McHale pulled down the huge offensive rebound and pitched it back out. Boston called time out with 20 seconds left and 18 on the shot clock. On the inbounds, Johnson got it to Bird, who dumped it in to McHale on the right box with 11 seconds left. McHale threw it back to DJ. This is when Thomas rammed Johnson in the vain hope of a steal. DJ missed his first shot but rattled home the second, leaving Boston ahead by the antedeluvian score of 79-78 and setting up the dramatic finale.
"That's one of the weirdest games, one of the weirdest turnarounds I've ever been in," observed K.C. Jones. Oh, it's a strange series, all right. Who knows? Maybe Chuck Nevitt will become an issue before it's over.