The Detroit Pistons barged into the Salt Palace last night for their once-a-year visit. And do these guys know how to wear out their welcome or what? They do the road like Atilla the Hun. In another life they'll be a motorcycle gang.
They have a different philosophy than most NBA teams when it comes to away games. They act as if every gym is an alley. THEIR alley. When teams get through playing the Pistons, the next step is to go downtown and pore through mug shots.The Jazz found out last night why these are the guys with the (by far) best road record in the NBA. Coming into tipoff, the Pistons were 20-13 away from Motor City. Coming out of a double-overtime affair that had all the finesse of a Mike Tyson fight, they were 21-13. How good is that? Well, there are six teams in the league that haven't yet won 21 games period - home or away.
The Jazz's consolation was that they got a regular season primer on the intricacies of lunchpail basketball; a kind of how-to in grime warfare. It could come in handy in the postseason, particularly if Detroit assistant coach Brendan Suhr's prediction comes true.
It was Suhr who, after coaching the Pistons through the bulk of last night's chaos due to Coach Chuck Daly's early overdosing on technicals, said to Jazz owner Larry Miller, "I feel confident your team will still be playing in June. I just hope we can return here and face you then."
Translated, that means a Jazz-Pistons NBA final series.
Hey, the Pistons may have beaten the Jazz, but they said they'd still respect them in the morning.
"The Jazz are the best defensive team in basketball," said Isiah Thomas. "They're for real. They're the toughest we've played."
All of this is easier to say, of course, after you've won anyway, which was the case with the Pistons as they stretched their best-in-the-NBA record to 51-17 and their won-lost mark over Western Conference teams to a rather inconceivable 20-3 following last night's 108-104 win.
"I don't know why that is," said Thomas of the dominance over the West. "But we do like playing on the road. Nobody likes us. Nobody likes Laimbeer, or Mahorn, or Dennis (Rodman). And we take a lot of pride in coming through in spite of the boos."
It could be - as the Jazz discovered - that the best way to handle the Pistons is with subtlety. Bashing them over the head sure didn't work.
The Jazz gave the Pistons a cold Salt Lake City welcome to start the game. In the introductions, Mahorn got booed, and Rodman got booed, and even Isiah got his share. And then of course Laimbeer got jeered and hooted and booed. After that, there was a dispute about the game ball. The Pistons felt the Jazz were trying to use a ball that hadn't been sufficiently pumped up. They protested. "Could we have a ball with some air in it?" asked Isiah.
This was BEFORE any shots were fired.
Then the Jazz came out smoking. They were ahead 10-0 before you could say "This is the Place." Karl Malone had already delivered six points, John Stockton had a couple of assists and four points, Mark Eaton had a block . . . and the Pistons weren't yet officially on the board.
For a lot of teams on the road, that would be it.
But as the Pistons then took a timeout, Laimbeer, doing his best to live up to his introduction, shoved Malone on the way to the sidelines. And there it was - the first clue that these guys might be stupid, but they weren't crazy about losing.
Shortly thereafter, Daly got his two technicals and was tossed from the gym. It was then that the Pistons, who were still down by eight, huddled together, watching their coach go off the floor to be printed and booked, and listened to Thomas, who said something along the order of, "Come on, let's win this one for the bad guys."
The Pistons climbed to within two at halftime, 42-40, and finally took the lead midway through the third period, at 48-47. By this point they already had suffered through four technical fouls, their head coach was gone from the building, Mahorn and Laimbeer were in foul trouble, and they had been called for three illegal defenses . . .
. . . and they were winning.
They were proving very difficult to subdue.
The Jazz didn't exactly back down, and when Stockton hit a three-pointer at the regulation buzzer to send the game into overtime things looked fair for the home team. But by then Eaton and Malone had fouled out, and the Pistons had a deeper bench.
"They have a lot of experienced players, and they showed us how you have to step up and hold your position," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, long an admirer of people who hold their ground, even if it isn't their ground.
No doubt last night's game film will get a workout in the Jazz locker room for weeks to come. You never know. They could still be watching it in June.