BOSTON -- The sneaker sat in the paint, all by itself. The man who had been wearing it, Isiah Thomas, was now a few feet away, on his back, his face contorted in pain, grabbing the foot that had the sock on it. Even here, more than 100 miles away, you could hear the groan from Detroit: "Oh, no. Now what?"
Now what, indeed? Thomas had been squaring up to defend a fourth-quarter drive by the Boston Celtics' Dee Brown, and Brown went into him, came down on his shoe, which stayed put, as if nailed to the ground, as Thomas went hurtling out of it. He did not get up. The other Pistons rushed across the floor. Detroit coach Chuck Daly cursed.
"I picked up Isiah's shoe and just tossed it," Dennis Rodman would say afterward, before X-rays of Thomas' sprained foot proved negative. "I turned to [teammate] Bill Laimbeer and said, 'Can you believe our luck? I mean, can you believe it? It's always something.' "
So now we have it: a real Detroit-Boston series. One in which bones ache and muscles throb and the stars are hurting and whoever has the most guts is going to win. Larry Bird out. Will he play in Game 2? Will he make it to practice? And who knows what we're in for with this latest Thomas injury? Isiah seems to be running out of body parts. Wrist. Hamstring. Sprained foot.
You can be sure of this: We'll be looking at more nights of "Can he play?" and "Will he play" and "How do you feel, Isiah? How do you feel?" And just once, just once, you wish the Pistons could do something easy.
But then, they wouldn't be the Pistons, would they?
And they sure looked like the Pistons last night. It was in their eyes. Did you see that box score? Pistons 86, Celtics 75? What is that, the third-quarter score? What is that, the Boston College-Holy Cross score? 86-75? The Pistons' point total you can explain very easily: They shot like hell. In and out. Off the rim. Sometimes not even hitting the rim. They make any of their baskets, this game is a blowout.
That's because the Celtics' score also can be explained by the Pistons: It was defense. No. It was DEFENSE. It was DEEEEEEEEEFENSE! It was body-on-body, running, switching, rotating, slapping, blocking, boxing-out defense. So effective were the Pistons in covering their men last night, that it seemed as if they were computer controlled, little blips on some radar screen.
Not that they didn't have instructions. Let me give you an idea of what it was like to sit behind the Pistons' bench last night:
"POST UP! POST UP!"
"PICK AND ROLL!"
"ISO! ISO! ISO!"
"DEE! DEE! . . . McHALE! McHALE!"
zTC And that's just one play. Daly orchestrated this thing like a drill sergeant yelling at a camp full of new recruits. Literally every defensive move seemed to be shouted out by the coach or one of his assistants or one of the bench players. Every step. Every move. That's a lot of yelling.
But it worked.
"I thought we had a great game defensively," Daly said afterward, his voice understandably hoarse. "Our rotation was excellent. When we play intense like that, it's our kind of game. Low scoring. I'd like to shoot a little better."
Hey. You can't have everything.
But they'll take the win. They'll take home-court advantage. And the best part of it? They were ready to play from the opening tap. No more Atlanta doldrums. No more regular-season "Are we here tonight?" These were the old Pistons, screaming at each other during timeouts, gritting their teeth on defense, talking out there on the floor.
Personally, I think it's this building. You walk into the visitors' locker room here in Boston Garden, and you immediately notice the windows are locked shut. They are always shut here in summertime. And then someone mysteriously turns on the heat and you begin to sweat. You hang your clothes on wooden pegs and stare at the gray cinder block walls. There is one toilet. Two shower heads. The tile floor is dirty. Welcome to the Garden.
And the Pistons love it.
"The first series for us was a proving point, it was a question: Do we want to win another championship?" Laimbeer said after grabbing 12 rebounds last night. "From here on in, that question is answered. We want it."
It was good to hear that kind of talk. It was good to see this kind of effort -- even though, admittedly, Bird was out, and the Celtics should not be able to beat the Pistons without him. In fact, pretty much everything was enjoyable last night, for Pistons fans, until that sneaker came off and Isiah was taken to the hospital.
"What did you think when you saw Isiah down and that sneaker just lying there?" someone asked John Salley, always the optimist.
"Me? Well, being from Brooklyn, I thought about running out there and grabbing it."
As I said, all is normal.
Which means chaos.