Larry Bird, held to two points in the fourth quarter in each of the last two games, scored 17 in the final 12 minutes tonight for a career playoff high of 43 points as the Boston Celtics defeated the Detroit Pistons, 130-123, in Game 5 of their NBA Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Dennis Johnson, consistent throughout the night, provided 30 points for Boston, which took a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 6 will be played Friday night at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Vinnie Johnson, a thorn in the Celtics' side during the Pistons' 102-99 victory in Game 4, led Detroit with 30 points but his team could not overcome Bird, Johnson or the Celtics' marksmanship from the free throw line.
Boston converted 37 of 39 foul shots.
"We knew what we had to do as a team and we did it," said Dennis Johnson, whose status at game time had been uncertain because of a sore back. "Maybe we held the ball back a few times when we should have passed it forward, but for the most part we did it."
The "it" was move the basketball via the fast break, which, when not setting up easy layups, created under-the-basket mismatches of which the Celtics took advantage.
"We haven't been forcing our offense on their defense, that's what we worked on the last couple of days," said Johnson. "At times tonight I saw the team that we were back 50 or so games into the season."
That included Bird, troubled recently by bursitis in his right elbow. The problem was not noticeable tonight. Bird was good on 17 of 33 shots from the field and he got 13 rebounds. Many of Bird's baskets came from the inside, that, too, by design.
"I wanted to go inside early and then I kept on because my jumper wasn't really falling," Bird said. "They played tough. There was a lot of pushing and shoving but I think we won because we got more easy baskets than they did."
Detroit shot 50 percent from the field but the predominantly outside-shooting Pistons couldn't make a fourth-quarter miracle on this night. As jumper after jumper fell away from the rim, the Celtics' grinding eventually took over.
Ahead, 95-90, after three quarters, Boston allowed the Pistons to get no closer than three points, 101-98, with 9:57 to play. Forty-nine seconds later Bird made a three-point play and, 40 seconds after that, a layup that put the Celtics decisively in control.
"We were trying to get the ball to Larry more and in places where he could handle it," said Coach K.C. Jones. "Sometimes we give him a yellow light but it turns green real quick."
In the Pistons' locker room, Coach Chuck Daly was seeing red.
"The guys who are playing have to play harder," he said. "They have to realize who they're going up against. They can't go 80 percent or 90 percent. If anything, it has to be 110 percent."
Besides the problem of playing against the Celtics in Boston Garden, where they have won 17 of their last 18 playoff games, Detroit's Isiah Thomas had to do it without his uniform, stolen during the day. The shirt Thomas wore had a 42 but lacked a name. That was fitting, because the performance of the player learning it wasn't especially noteworthy.
"When they unpacked the uniforms,orms tonight mine wasn't there," Thomas said. "It threw me off a little bit. I don't think my head was in the game during part of the first quarter. It just didn't feel right."
Everything about Vinnie Johnson's game is going right, however. As in Game 4, Johnson kept Detroit in the game, making 11 of 16 shots from the field and forcing Jones to use five different players in an effort to guard him.
His 16-point second quarter got Detroit to 68-67 at intermission. He and Kelly Tripucka (20 points) cut a 10-point deficit to 122-116 with one minute left, but it was a last gasp.
According to the coach, the best man to check the Pistons' Johnson perhaps would have been a younger K.C. Jones, a stellar defensive player during his years in the NBA. "I'd eat him up but I can say that now," Jones said.
This was the 15th time in 15 opportunities since 1962 that the Celtics won at home in the fifth game of a 2-2 series. Still, no one on the Pistons was ready to concede Boston a spot in the conference finals against the Philadelphia 76ers.
"We're a capable team, they're a capable team. Tonight they made the plays and we didn't," said Thomas. "I think all the pressure's on them. They have to win again to end the series. They're the defending champs and have to repeat. We weren't even supposed to get this far so there's no pressure on us."
Bird agreed. "We've never not had any respect for them," he said. "We want to win the series but they do, too, and it's gonna be tough. I think we can do it, though."