A championship hangs by a fingernail here and in come the hobnailed boots from the Motor City, climbing down off their motorcycles . . .
And disappearing down a manhole.
Boston Garden was braced for an onslaught, but the Detroit Pistons put on a comedy, instead. The greatest of them, Isiah Thomas, missed 18 of his 24 shots, and his teammates weren't a lot better. Gratefully, the Celtics, missing one starter and playing the others 44, 44, 44 and 43 minutes, eased to a 104-91 victory Tuesday night and a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Celtics have played better games, themselves. Larry Bird had a triple double (18 points, 16 rebounds, 11 assists) the hard way; he missed 14 of his first 17 shots and was 7 for 22 overall. There were more bricks than in the Great Wall of China. On the bright side, it's over.
"I don't know if they were ripe or not," Thomas said. "I can only speak for us. We were ripe, too.
The bad news for Thomas was that he had to rally to get to 6 for 24 shooting, after missing 14 of his first 16 shots. It was Isiah's spectacular performances--the record 25-point quarter, the half-court basket, the game-winning shots--that got the Pistons to their first Eastern finals, but Tuesday he came out firing and missing . . . and missing . . . and missing. You needed an abacus to keep up.
"I didn't know I could miss that many shots," Thomas said later, cheerily.
"Am I embarrassed? No. But I'm real mad at myself."
The Celtics could barely believe their good fortune. Guarding Thomas in the absence of Danny Ainge, was Jerry Sichting. Few players can think of staying with Thomas, and Sichting isn't one of them.
"You started to wait for Isiah," Kevin McHale said. "Those shots he missed, you expect him to make. He makes so many unbelievable shots.
"To show you the respect we have for him, when he took that shot at the end of the third quarter? That was a 40-footer and I thought, 'Oh gee, that's got a shot.'
"But he missed a couple shots early. He's like anybody else. You miss shots early and. . . . "
You wind up blowing an opportunity. The Pistons rested for five days while the Celtics played Games 6 and 7 against the Bucks. In that time, Robert Parish got hurt and got well, Kevin McHale hyper-extended a knee and kept playing, and Danny Ainge was lost.
The Celtics had one day to recover. From what, asked Piston Coach Chuck Daly.
"I see McHale, they're carrying him off the floor and the next night he goes out and plays 42 minutes," Daly said Monday. "He's not that injured. They're pretty clever about all that injury stuff."
There was also ample attention devoted to the thuggy bears, the Pistons' tag team tandem of Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. Whether they were intimidated by the publicity or not, their first playoff foray in the Garden was not the war that had been feared/predicted.
Would the Pistons come out tight? The Celtics took a 4-0 lead and Bird put up a three-pointer, trying to put them in a hole right from the start.
The shot missed. Bird missed three more while the Pistons raced to a 16-11 lead. Detroit had one guard going, Joe Dumars, who hit five of his first six shots.
Then Dumars joined his teammates in the icebox. He missed his next four shots and then stopped shooting.
How would the young Piston shock troops, John Salley and Dennis Rodman, the scourge of Atlanta, react?
Like rookies. Salley had 7 points, 6 rebounds, 5 fouls and 3 turnovers. Rodman had 10 minutes.
At the half, the Pistons were shooting 35.8% and trailing by only four. Was Daly at least happy about that?
"I was ecstatic even going into the last seven minutes of the game, when we were 6-8 down. I don't know if we were shooting 40%."
Tired, injured, with a starting guard missing, the Celtics still got the ball in the right man's hands often enough. That turned out to be Parish, who scored 15 points in the third period as Boston drew away.
It was 67-59 late in the quarter when Bird, 3 for 14, finally hit an outside shot. At the other end, Thomas, 2 for 16, hit a layup in traffic. Bird got the ball again and knocked down another 20-footer. Isiah tried a running one-hander and missed. Bird got the ball a third time, dawdled out by the three-point line looking as if he was about to shoot another jumper, drew the defense to him and whipped the ball inside to Parish who dunked, was fouled and made the free throw. The Celtics led, 74-61.
All the Pistons could do after that was chase them. Since they had no offense going, that wasn't a pretty sight, either. They just gave the ball to Vinnie Johnson and let him try to take on the entire Celtic defense by himself. It didn't work often enough.
"Our offense," Laimbeer said later, "was a basket case."
So the Celtics got off the hook. The next time, they'll be readier. Isiah Thomas says he will be, too.
"The good thing about being me," Thomas said late Tuesday night, his smile still bright, "I know I can make that many in a row."