It had to happen. Sooner or later, these nasty rivals were destined to go straight to the mattresses. Innocent bystanders be damned, the Celtics and Pistons have now officially gone to war. They shoved and elbowed and banged and huffed and puffed through 58 minutes of oft-sloppy but never timid basketball last night at Boston Garden, and when it was over, the Celtics had saved face and the series, in that order.
With Kevin McHale making a controversial three-pointer (was his foot on the line or wasn't it?) to tie it with five seconds remaining in the first overtime, and with Dennis (Money Time) Johnson dominating the final 1:25 of the ballgame, the Celtics tied up the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals, 1-1, with a stirring 119-115 double-overtime triumph over the rugged Detroit Pistons.
Boston was trailing, 115-113, with 1:39 remaining in the second OT following a Joe Dumars jumper. DJ tied it with an inside-out foul line jumper from McHale. At 1:06, Isiah Thomas, whose chances to be a hero thanks to a sensational three-pointer had been wiped out by McHale's improbable shot, won a jump ball from Larry Bird, only to spoil the possession with a not-needed 21-foot miss from the right wing.
Johnson took the ball hard to the hoop, drawing, and sinking, two free throws to put Boston ahead, 117-115, with 43 seconds to go. Detroit elected to clear out the left side for Adrian Dantley, who settled for a flat set shot from 20 feet, which was rebounded by Robert Parish at the 25-second mark.
DJ was rammed by Thomas with nine seconds left, and DJ swished both. He completed his night's work following a Detroit timeout by smashing away an Isiah three-point attempt from the left wing, knocking it out of bounds with six seconds to go. A Vinnie Johnson heave ended it.
If the Celtics go on to win either this series and the NBA title, people will immediately turn their thoughts back to that fateful Boston possession with seven seconds left in the first OT. Thomas had just capped a Detroit comeback from a 106-102 OT deficit with an icy three-pointer from the left over a switched-off McHale two seconds earlier. Boston called time, and on the inbounds a DJ pass skimmed off the fingers of the struggling (6 for 20) Larry Bird. But wait . . . McHale, a lifetime 1-for-21 three-point shooter who hadn't attempted even one desperation three in 76 regular-season and playoff games this year, picked the ball off and swished a line-drive three from the dead center of the court.
The question was whether or not his foot was nudging the line. There was a lengthy midcourt pow-wow between the officiating crew of Jack Madden and Mike Mathis and the entire Detroit entourage. At length, Madden emerged from the conclave with his arms raised, signifying a game-tying (109-109) three-pointer.
There was plenty of action left in that OT, however. First Dumars air-balled a corner three. Then Bird traveled after receiving the inbounds. Finally, Bill Laimbeer's weak lob intended for Thomas was knocked away by the ubiquitous DJ, sending one and all into the second OT.
The Pistons will bemoan the favorable three-point ruling for about the next three centuries (both Skip Caray and Rick Barry on WTBS say even the replays were too close to make a definitive call), but the fact is that Detroit essentially outplayed the Celtics and gift-wrapped this game in about 10 different ways. Start with abominable second-half free throws.
Detroit got much the best of the down-the-stretch officiating in the feared Boston Garden, but Detroit managed to hit only 22 of 32 in the second half, plus OTs. Detroit also led by 5 (96-91) with 4:07 left in regulation, but the Pistons were then in the middle of an amazing stretch, during which they could manage but one field goal (a tough Thomas banker to put his team ahead, (98-97) in 10 minutes.
Detroit had also provided Boston with life by committing 15 first-half turnovers, good for 20 Celtics points. Included among Detroit's game total of 21 turnovers were no fewer than seven offensive fouls. The missed free throws absolutely leveled the Pistons. Dantley missed the second of two with 11 seconds to go in regulation, leaving the score tied at 102. James Edwards, otherwise praiseworthy (18 points off the bench), missed a pair to start the first OT. Dantley missed two more with the score tied at 113 in the second OT. And so on.
By no extraordinary stretch of anyone's most fertile imagination could this be called a great game. The 66 personal fouls were well earned. Messrs. Madden and Mathis could have called 166 more. It was a game of hand-to-hand combat, owing more to Camp Lejeune than to a classroom at West Point. The largest margin attained by either team was 7, which Boston had as early as 15-8 (before the turnovers took over) and as late as 76-69. But the Pistons never allowed Boston to run and hide.
The Detroit guys had it down to 81-78 after three quarters, and by the time the fourth quarter was 1:20 old, a basket by the fired-up Microwave (Vinnie Johnson) had put the Pistons in front, 82-81. A bit later on, Detroit took apparent control, moving into such leads as 94-89 (two John Salley free throws) and 96-91 (two freebies by Edwards).
Boston's last-gasp regulation run started with an inside-outer by the irrepressible DJ (22 points, 10 assists, 3 steals), whose swisher made it 96-93 (3:50). Boston got back into the lead on the only Bird basket of the last 27-plus minutes (97-96), but the key shot down that particular stretch was a playground shovel drive by Danny Ainge which gave the Celtics a 102-101 lead with 28 seconds left. Dantley's first chance to be a hero followed, but he could get only half the job done, making one of two with 11 seconds to go. Bird's bid to win it on a right corner spinner from 17 feet was well defensed by Salley.
But that was long before McHale's Three-Pointer Heard 'Round The Commonwealth, or before Dennis Johnson enhanced a reputation which should make him a spokesman for some company which seeks to portray an image of continually coming through under pressure.
And now it's off to the wilds of Pontiac, tied at 1-1. They'd better remember to bring their entrenching tools.