It was Bruce Springsteen, the renowned chronicler by song, who once noted that you can't start a fire without a spark. Tonight at Joe Louis Arena, the Detroit Pistons got sparks from within and from the opposition to defeat the Boston Celtics, 125-117, in Game 3 of their best-of-seven NBA Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Center Bill Laimbeer led the Pistons with 27 points but Isiah Thomas was the boss for Detroit, with Terry Tyler acting as sideman. Thomas scored 26 points and passed off for 16 assists. Tyler scored 18 points, 16 in the final quarter.

Dennis Johnson led Boston with 27 points. Larry Bird scored 25 and Kevin McHale 24. The Celtics hold a 2-1 edge in the series, with the Game 4 to be played here Sunday afternoon.

"Detroit was feisty and that's the name of the game in the playoffs," said Boston Coach K.C. Jones. During the first half, neither team appeared very intent on mixing it up, a lapse Detroit could not afford.

"I think the key to the game was the loose balls we were getting," said Thomas. "You can have all of the great shots and spectacular plays that you want but sometimes it really comes down to being scrappy. We weren't trying to be super physical or to hurt anyone out there."

The game probably hinged, though, on a play in which one of the Pistons nearly was hurt. Detroit held a 77-73 lead with 7:32 to play in the third quarter when Boston's Robert Parish was whistled for a personal foul for knocking Laimbeer to the floor.

After Laimbeer got up, Parish rocked him with a hard elbow to the head. The Boston center escaped being ejected, but was called for an elbowing foul.

"I feel he took some cheap shots at me. They (the officials) just weren't calling anything," said Parish. "I guarantee something will break out if they let it go Sunday like they did tonight. Elbows were flying, and every time we play, something happens."

What happened tonight gave the Pistons their missing spark. The crowd of 14,209, dormant to that point, was noticeably incensed over the Laimbeer-Parish play and the fans were on their feet for the remainder of the game. Parish's continued presence also seemed to inspire the Pistons, as they went on a 13-6 run to take a 90-79 lead.

Still, Detroit almost was snowed under by the talents of Johnson and Bird. Johnson, the Celtics' most consistent performer tonight, scored 15 points in the third period. Bird, held to nine in a 62-62 first half, scored 10 in the last 5:30 of the period, which ended with Detroit clinging to a 98-96 lead.

With 8:30 remaining, it was 108-104 Detroit and it seemed the Pistons were headed toward a collapse. It was at that point, though, that Tyler began to assert himself, scoring the team's next 14 points.

"Our guys were setting great picks for him," said Thomas. "When a guy gets hot like that, you get tunnel vision and just keep giving him the ball."

The quarter was the latest installment in a series of fabulous finishes for Tyler. In Game 2 of the Pistons' first-round victory over New Jersey, he scored 16 points in the final 12 minutes and 14 in the final period of the next game.

"Down the stretch, you've got to make the big plays -- get a rebound or a blocked shot -- and that's something that I think I've learned," said Tyler. "They were leaving me wide open and the coach kept running the same play over and over.

"The coaches kept telling me to move closer, but I found myself moving farther and farther out. I would hope that I'll quit doing that."

Then again, why mess with a good thing?

When asked if the victory represented the start of a new series, Thomas smiled.

"I don't think so, it's still Detroit against Boston," he said. "I'm not into things like changing complexions, that's too philosophical and analytical for me. I just try to play the game, which is what I'm looking forward to doing this Sunday."