The Detroit Pistons had been wondering aloud exactly what it would take for them to win a close game in Boston Garden. Well, holding the Celtics to 25 percent shooting in a half should do until something better comes along. Yup, the Celtics are once again a game away from playoff elimination. For the first time in their history, they have lost two fifth games at home when tied at 2-2. Atlanta did it two weeks ago, and the Pistons shoved the Celtics farther out on the plank last night with a 102-96 overtime decision before 14,890 stunned Garden onlookers. The Pistons take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals back to the Silverdome for Game 6 tomorrow night.
Boston had lurched into overtime despite two Larry Bird misses in the final 34 seconds of regulation. Fred Roberts had tied the game at 92 (Boston's only 2 substitute points of the night) on a short post-up with 1:09 left, but Bird was unable to get the shots he wanted because Dennis Rodman played him tough. Larry shot 4 for 15 in the second half plus OT.
The contest had started out as a real basketball game, in contrast to the previous brawls underneath, but by the fourth quarter, it was trench warfare again. Every whistle created outrage, and you'll be hearing around town today about how Jake O'Donnell brought down the Celtics. Six field goals in the final 17 minutes is what ruined the Celtics, not Jake O'Donnell.
We're talking about a team which had a scoreless starter (Danny Ainge) and had four men score all but 2 of its points. With Isiah Thomas taking it upon himself to make things happen, Detroit shrugged off a 54-40 halftime deficit, turning the game upside down with a 19-2 run which changed a 68-56 Boston lead into a 75-70 Detroit advantage with 9:24 remaining in regulation.
Thomas had his Good Twin/ Evil Twin routine perfected last night. In the first half, he was 3 for 10 with his basketball mind back in Ypsilanti. In the second half plus overtime, Thomas scored 29 of his game-high 35 points and did it by taking 20 shots. Isiah took eight of Detroit's last nine shots in regulation (leaving one crumb for Bill Laimbeer), and had Boston been able to do anything offensively, he would have been vilified for his hostile takeover of the Detroit offense. "I said to myself, 'If we are going to lose, I'm going down shooting,' " Thomas explained. "If I was going to lose, I was going to shoot us out or shoot us in."
The Celtics were dominated by Detroit's post-intermission defense. The home team shot 6 for 20 in the third quarter, 4 for 16 in the fourth quarter and 2 for 12 in the overtime. That's 12 for 48 in 29 minutes of basketball. That's pathetic. "At the half," said Thomas, "we knew if we could make a couple of shots we could get back in the game because we felt our defense was good enough to keep them from making shots they're accustomed to making."
Boston was loose and easy in the first half, moving from a 29-26 one-period edge to the comfy halftime spread with a sound mixture of inside and outside basketball. Bird appeared to be his old self. By halftime, he had 15 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and a block, and there were times when he appeared omnipresent. The crowd sensed a big Boston victory. But Detroit never stopped believing in itself. "In the first half, we weren't contesting every shot," said John Salley. "In the second half, we concentrated. Even if we got there late, we made sure a hand was up. And we went after every rebound."
Boston's high-water mark was at 56-40. But here Dennis Johnson hung out a pass which Thomas knocked ahead, leading to a layup for Joe Dumars (18). The next thing Boston knew, it was 56-46 and Adrian Dantley was on a little roll. Boston's sluggish offense awoke, trading hoops with the Pistons for three minutes or so. The key reversal came in the final nine seconds of the third period. Two free throws by Kevin McHale (26 before fouling out with 1:59 left in regulation) made it 70-61, Boston. But Thomas first scored on a lane jumper over half of North America, then stole the inbounds from the shell-shocked Ainge (scoreless in 47 minutes) and popped in a short jumper, sending the Pistons riding into the final period on a cloud, down by a scant 5 points (70-65).
The momentum carried over as Detroit scored on its first five possessions to go up, 75-70. By now the Pistons' defensive commitment was total, and the Celtics just couldn't get good shots. Referees O'Donnell and Hue Hollins did their best to adjudicate the mutual mauling underneath, but with Boston punching it inside every time downcourt, it was Slam-Dance Time in the paint again. Once in overtime, the Celtics failed to improve. A second-chance basket by DJ gave them a 94-92 lead, but the next 6 points belonged to Detroit as a free throw and gift three-point play by Dantley (with all the whacking going on, Hollins decides to call a teeny-tiny touch outside on Roberts) and a shovel drive by Thomas made it 98-94 with 1:55 to go.
Boston's last gasp came at the 23-second mark. It was 100-96 when Jim Paxson and Rodman became entangled and Jake called an offensive foul on Paxson. So let us not hear about Detroit being unable to get key calls in Boston. And if they win tomorrow night, the Pistons won't have to worry about anything having to do with Boston until next year.