He had been pushed and bumped and elbowed, and all he did was raise his eyebrows and look at referees Jack Madden and Mike Mathis. Dennis Johnson knew better than to expect whistles to blow on this particular evening. He knew that it had come down to a game of basic in-your-face basketball. It was a game of skins and shirts, playground style, where either you made a shot or you didn't. Either you made the play or you didn't.
Last night, with the frantic Boston Garden crowd of 14,890 chanting "DJ, DJ," Dennis Johnson did what he had to do to help the Celtics hang on to an incredible 119-115 double-overtime victory over the Detroit Pistons and tie the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals, 1-1.
All the Celtic guard did in the second overtime was take control, coming up with a pair of steals that took the heart out of the Pistons and scoring the final 6 points of the game, which took the soul out of them. "DJ just took over at the end," said Danny Ainge.
Someone obviously had to, since Larry Bird was an offensive no-show for the second straight game and no one else seemed to emerge. Oh, Kevin McHale threw in his controversial three-pointer which sent the game into the second overtime. "I raised my arms like everyone else on that one," said DJ, who seemed to get more of an adrenaline fix than anyone.
But the Pistons would not go gently into this good and long night. They were intent on leaving Boston with a 2-0 lead. Johnson wouldn't let them. He stole the ball from Joe Dumars and headed the length of the court. As he reached the basket, bodies collided and he felt himself sliding to the ground.
No whistle, and Johnson arched his eyebrows and gave Mathis a "come on" look. Then he stole the ball from Isiah Thomas, who had been conducting his own war with Johnson all night. They had banged each other the entire game and kept giving each other looks that were one step short of putting on the gloves. "He's a great clutch performer," conceded Pistons coach Chuck Daly. "He made the plays."
And he made them all in the final two minutes of the game. "I looked at the clock and there was 1:49 left," Johnson said. "I got a steal and then another steal. Things just fell into my hands." It was in his hands until nine seconds left, when his two foul shots gave the Celtics the 119-115 lead. The Pistons called time out, and the crowd, which had counted this one in the L column until McHale's miracle came out of the haze, started chanting DJ's name.
It started in the section of the stands where Red Auerbach sits and spread around the Garden, up to the rafters, where Johnny Most nearly went from agony to ecstasy.
Finally, the clock ran down as the Pistons tried one more time to win it. Fittingly enough, it ended with DJ blocking a Thomas shot and the two looking at each other for the final time in a long and draining evening.
The message was clear. They would meet again. And it was just as clear that on this night, Dennis Johnson had won the individual war.