There were three seconds left, and that was that. Larry Bird walked off the floor. Danny Ainge walked off the floor. Then Dennis Johnson. Finally, the limping, gimping Robert Parish and Kevin McHale exited.
There were three seconds left and the celebration had begun inside the huge arena and the five starting Celtics walked and walked and . . . Kevin McHale stopped. He shook Isiah Thomas' hand. "Go get 'em," the Celtics forward said in the middle of the noise in the middle of the floor of the Silverdome at 11:30 last night. "Neither of those teams want to play physical out there in the West. Go right after 'em. Don't be satisfied with getting there. Go get 'em. You can. You're good."
Thus the torch was passed. Go get 'em. There was not a lot of ceremony involved, but -- then again -- not much was needed. The Detroit Pistons were the new kings of the professional basketball East, 95-90 winners in this sixth and final game of the best-of-seven playoff series to determine a representative for next week's NBA Finals. The Boston Celtics were going home. "The Pistons were better," one Celtic after another had to agree. "No matter how much you talk, you have to say the Pistons were better."
"You can only talk so much about what you're doing wrong before you have to talk about what the other team was doing right," McHale said. "You have to say that's a hell of a defensive team." "They covered everything," Danny Ainge said. "There never seemed to be any open shots. They forced us to work the clock down. They forced us to take shots we didn't want to take. They played good defense."
This final game was snipped from the same cloth as all the other games. The game was a flat-out struggle for the Celtics. Never did they seem to have a rhythm, a flow. Never did they find a secret word or code or 20-foot jumper that worked again and again. Every shot was put through the basket with a lot of hammering, a lot of Black and Decker noise. When did scoring a basket become such a hard task? Men who are paid a lot of money to put this round leather ball through this much larger metal rim suddenly could not do the simple act that had made them millionaires.
"And it wasn't one of those 'Larry just wasn't hitting' stories, either," Danny Ainge said. "We had a lot more problems than that." "I think we shot 10 percentage points lower in the series than we did during the season," McHale said. "You just can't do that. Forty percent (actually 41) during the series. That just won't get it done." The individual pieces of the Celtics game had disappeared. It was as if all the pieces on a chessboard suddenly were restricted, their moves cut by half or even more. Queens and bishops and castles had become rooks. Pawns. One space. No more.
Bird seemed smothered by the Pistons' Dennis Rodman. The butterfly jumper simply would not work. WOULD NOT WORK. He was 4 for 17 in the game, 23 percent. Struggling. Even on his drives, the ball would go around the rim, spinning hard, spinning out. He looked as if he were trying to change the game by his force of will. The will could not work. Not this time.
He scored 2 points in the final two games. He came out of a whirlpool in this one, troubled by a back that ached and throbbed, couldn't hit a shot. Couldn't hit anything. Three-point king. One for 11. Couldn't throw his dirty laundry into a clothes hamper. Dennis Johnson? Also aching. Aching worse. Brought to the city a day late from his bed at home. Walking as if he were Fred Sanford going to get the morning paper. Trying to fight through his bad back. Unable to move the way he wanted to move.
"Everybody was just getting frustrated out there," Dennis Johnson said. "We weren't hitting once again, and everybody started forcing shots. Frustrated." Robert Parish was out of the game before the first period was finished, walking slowly on a knee bruised in a collision with the Pistons' Vinnie Johnson. McHale mostly was McHale, spinning through the middle, finding his offense, but the Pistons closed on him as if he were a mouse in a trap. How could he move? He was playing with reserves who had not played much in these games -- with Mark Acres and Brad Lohaus and Jim Paxson and Dirk Minniefield -- and the Pistons were able to shuffle extra people to the trouble spots.
Hard. Everything was hard for the Celtics. Harder and harder, to be exact. As this game went longer -- as most of the games went longer -- everything became harder and harder. Too old? Too tired? Too whatever. The Pistons were the team that was flying at the end of these games. The Celtics were the ones who were not.
"You have to give them credit," Danny Ainge said. "They're the Pistons -- and I don't like the Pistons, just don't like 'em -- but you have to give them credit." He sat in the locker room that was quiet and businesslike. An era was ending as tall men took showers. Red Auerbach was talking quietly about retirement. Larry Bird had a crowd around him in a corner. Robert Parish dressed without a word, no one bothering him.
"What will I do if it's Detroit against the Lakers in the Finals?" Danny Ainge asked himself -- more than anyone else -- as he had a sudden thought. "That would be a tough one."
"Would you watch?" a reporter asked.
Ainge thought for half a second.
"I don't think so," he said.