The Detroit pistons are a team of explosive charges. Detonate Isiah Thomas and duck. Put the match to Vinnie Johnson and get out of the way. Ignite Adrian Dantley and run for cover. That is the way they play, and that is the way they embarrassed the Boston Celtics over the weekend at the Pontiac Silverdome to tie the Eastern Conference NBA final at two games apiece.
Boston lost those two by a total of 44 points (122-104 and 145-119, the latter being a playoff record for points scored against the Celts), and there was nothing fluky about either Detroit victory. The Pistons made the Celtics look old and injured, which they are, as well as tepid and tentative, which they have never been before. "It was the Silverdome Mystique," said Thomas with a grin. It must have been something, for Sam Vincent, he of the much-maligned Boston bench, led Boston in scoring in each game with 18 points.
In the first half of Game 3 on Saturday, Detroit handed the ball to Dantley. Go ahead, Adrian. By halftime he had scored 25 points, and Detroit was off to a 73-53 lead it never lost. Never mind that Dantley didn't score a point in the second half; he had already blasted a crater in the Celtic terrain.
In the second quarter of Game 4, the Pistons spun the wheel and Johnson's number came up. All yours, Vinnie. He scorched the Celtics for 17 points, most of them on his improbable lean-in, splay-legged jumper, and Detroit had a 62-58 lead at the half. Third quarter? My ball again, said Dantley. He scored 10 points in the first four minutes as the Pistons built a 76-65 lead, which grew to 104-88 by the end of the period. Thomas (22 points) and Bill Laimbeer (20) also had their moments in the spotlight.
Teamwork has many facets, and one of them is knowing when to give the ball up and get out of the way. "With them, it seems that if one guy gets rolling, then another guy gets rolling," said Boston's Larry Bird, who never got rolling in either Game 3 or Game 4 (17 and 16 points, respectively).
Detroit's third-period surge on Sunday was so overpowering and deflating to the Celtics that at one point Boston's lineup consisted of Vincent, Darren Daye, Fred Roberts, Greg Kite and Danny Ainge, who wasn't supposed to be playing because of sprained ligaments in his right knee. Say this for K.C. Jones—he recognizes a lost cause when he sees one.
The loss on Saturday was understandable from the Celtic perspective: Boston had won Games 1 and 2 in Boston Garden (104-91 and 110-101) and was probably due for a letdown. The Celtics got only 21 minutes from Robert Parish (sprained left ankle) and zero minutes from Ainge. But on Sunday they had that gunslinger look in their eyes, particularly Bird, who brushed off Laimbeer's handshake at the beginning of the game. Just 24 hours earlier, Laimbeer and Bird had been ejected after a pileup under the Celtic basket. You shouldn't have roughed up Bird, came the warning from the Boston locker room—now he's mad. He may have been mad, but he was also relatively toothless on offense.
It was not just Bird, though, who failed to get untracked—it was the entire Celtic starting five. "We'll learn one thing from looking at these films," said Dennis Johnson after Game 4. "We'll see the Green Team [the bench] moving the ball, and we'll see the White Team [the starters] standing around."
And at the other end they'll see Dantley going around and through his defender, be it Bird (as it was on Saturday) or Kevin McHale (as it was on Sunday).
The weekend games in Detroit were a complete reversal of Games 1 and 2 in Boston, when the Celtics' find-the-open-man offense was vastly superior to the Pistons' find-the-hot-man offense. The teams' attacks are, in fact, a study in contrasts, which can be seen through the styles of the superstars, Bird and Thomas.