Johnson quarterbacks the Celtic offense, but when it bogs down, DJ usually gets the ball to Bird. Posted up on the right side, Bird begins his dribble, back to the basket, as a kind of subtle choreography unfolds around him. McHale cuts to the basket. Johnson fades to the other corner, seemingly out of the play but well within Bird's vision. Jerry Sichting spots up near the foul line. Parish glides toward Bird to set a pick. The point is, Bird has any number of options, not the least of which is a drive or a fallaway jumper for himself. "Covering them is always a scramble," says Detroit assistant coach Ron Rothstein.
The Piston offense, on the other hand, has been known to go into freeze-frame when Thomas has the ball. Lord knows Isiah can pass in traffic as well as anyone this side of Magic Johnson, but sometimes his movements are so unpredictable, so downright illogical, that his teammates can't figure out how to play off them. It becomes The Isiah Thomas Hour, a show that merits prime time only when his outside jumper is falling.
Which it was not doing in Game 1 in Boston Garden when Thomas shot 6 of 24 from the field. In Game 2, though, Thomas was brilliant, especially in the first half, when he scored 25 of his game-high 36 points, grinning at the Celtic defenders, chattering away like a magpie, driving to the basket, launching unerring outside jumpers. Incredibly, his act played well even in hostile Boston Garden. "Heck, even I enjoy Isiah's act," said McHale. But Thomas didn't have nearly enough help from his frontcourt, especially from Laimbeer, who scored only 2 points, and Dantley, who had only 6 of his 24 in the second half.
However, the Detroit offense is a thing of beauty when it's in full throttle, as it was in both weekend games. The Pistons fired on all cylinders, got everyone involved, and that's exactly what they need to do to be effective.
But did they also need to get rough to succeed against the Celtics? Jones thought they might. Before Game 1 he had shown his team a film clip of Laimbeer leveling Dominique Wilkins in the Pistons' semifinal series against Atlanta. The message was clear: Watch your backs. So it was really no surprise when a hockey game broke out in the fourth quarter of Game 3.
It began when Bird faked his defender, rookie Dennis Rodman, off his feet, and Laimbeer came over to help. Laimbeer pulled Bird to the floor, and all three players landed in a heap. Bird, who was already on record as uttering the immortal line, "We don't like him that good," began throwing punches while they were still tangled on the floor. The combatants were pulled apart but continued to shout insults at each other, until Bird, forever in search of the open man, suddenly flung the ball at Laimbeer, nailing him cleanly in the shoulder. "Just like all of Larry's passes," said Sichting later, "right on the money."
Bird and Laimbeer were ejected but later renewed their sparring in an exchange carried, courierlike, by reporters between the locker rooms.
Laimbeer: "Bird went up for the shot, and it looked like Rodman was going to undercut him. I grabbed hold of Larry to break my fall."
Bird: "Yeah, right, he was trying to break his fall. And when I threw the ball, I was just trying to get it to the ref."
Laimbeer: "I think he's a little better passer than that."