New York won the third game 90-87 in overtime. Thomas, who had won so many games for Detroit on last-second shots, had been unable to elude Mark Jackson long enough with the score tied at the end of regulation to get up anything more plausible than a 25-foot hook shot. There have been plant closings in Detroit that were easier to watch. Just as Thomas's stutter-step once could not be held back, now it was time that seemed to be rushing irrepressibly ahead. He turned 31 two days later, and he went into the final game averaging just 9.8 points.
"Don't go making me old," Thomas instructed reporters after Game 3, insisting that his skills hadn't declined but that the disappearance of the Pistons' frontcourt offense was allowing the Knicks to double-team him every time he crossed mid-court. "The difference now is we used to have people down there that other teams respected," Thomas said. "They weren't going to run at me or Joe [Dumars], or leave James Edwards open on the post or Mark Aguirre or [Rick] Mahorn."
Unlike Edwards and Mahorn, Aguirre was actually still with the Pistons for this series, although not necessarily so you would have noticed. When McCloskey brought in much-traveled forward Orlando Woolridge during the off-season and gave him a two-year contract worth $4.8 million, Aguirre went into a season-long sulk, besting all previous NBA records for sulking by several minutes.
The Knicks could have closed out the series at Detroit on Friday, but just as soon as they opened a 31-21 lead in the second period, they seemed uncertain what to do with it. "We could have put a stake in their heart and killed them," McDaniel said, once again magically capturing the spirit of the thing. But they didn't do it, and Dumars immediately led Detroit on a 28-4 run that stood up for an 86-82 victory.
The first half of Game 5 wasn't a defensive struggle, it was just a struggle, with both teams shooting 33%. "Every single play, there was somebody on your back, somebody pushing you, shoving you," Jackson said. But when Detroit pulled to within two, 74-72, with eight minutes to play, Ewing triggered a 9-1 run with two baskets from point-blank range and a blocked shot, rendering Thomas's sudden resurgence meaningless. Detroit scored just 84.8 points a game for the series, the fewest points by an NBA team in a five-game playoff series since the inception of the shot clock in 1954.
The Pistons had indelibly reinforced their Bad Boy image last year when most of the regulars walked off the floor before the end of their conference-final loss to Chicago without shaking hands. Last week Thomas predicted the way his team would go out. "I don't think you'll see this group crying and hugging each other as it leaves the floor," he said. At least they didn't give each other the finger.