BOSTON -- A few steps away, the game he wanted to win as much as any in his rich career was going on without him. Adrian Dantley had imagined leaving the NBA's Eastern Conference championship game in all sorts of ways, but never like this: by ambulance, his head held not high in victory but in the rigid embrace of a rubber collar.

"Do you remember what happened?" said a paramedic, his head inches from Dantley's as the stretcher was being wheeled from the Pistons' dressing room.

"No," said Dantley, "I don't remember."

"You were going up for a rebound," the paramedic replied.

Actually, Dantley was going for a loose ball when he butted heads with teammate Vinnie Johnson. It was one of those collisions that seemed fairly harmless, until Dantley couldn't get off the Boston Garden parquet unaided.

Early fright came from his not responding to immediate treatment. Hours later, it developed that the concussion was not serious and his overnight stay at Massachusetts General Hospital was merely for observation.

So Dantley would leave Boston in the manner of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and so many other exceptional players, after all. The hurt of losing such an important test was no greater for Dantley, only the headache.

"Guess I won't be a fighter," he said after a precautionary X-ray. He was in emergency room 9, still in uniform, lying on his side, his head propped in his right hand.

He still did not recall any of the accident's details. When someone mentioned a loose ball, Dantley laughed. He is not famous for getting his uniform smudged in such fashion.

"That makes two in one game," he said. "I remember going after one the first half, but I don't remember much after that. Except getting hit."

He did recall fright.

"They told me I was out maybe five or six minutes," he said, "and when I came to I had no feeling in my left side. I thought I was paralyzed. Scary."

As he had been on the floor, Pistons trainer Mike Abdenour was at Dantley's side in the hospital. He knew Dantley would be fine long before Dantley did.

"I had him squeeze my finger," Abdenour said. Right hand and then left hand. He also moved his right leg. Movement in his left leg didn't come as quickly. But even slight movement was a good sign.

"I just said: 'Take your own good time coming around.' "

The collision came with about 10 seconds left in the third quarter, and anyone examining the play-by-play account might believe nothing of any consequence took place.

The just-the-basketball-facts pink sheet reads: "Rodman for Dantley." Some Pistons regard it as their season's obituary.

"I gotta believe that with him in there the fourth quarter, we'd have won," Abdenour said.

Perhaps.

As Dantley was being taken for X-rays a few miles away, Danny Ainge was sinking the two foul shots that made a Pistons victory impossible, and survival in this seven-game series as sweet as any for the Celtics.

What irony. The Celtics were the cripples, so wounded you expected their players to glide out for the introductions Saturday in wheelchairs. Yet the pivotal player who ends up being absent for the final minutes is a Piston.

"I didn't see it," Ainge said of the Johnson-Dantley ramming. "All I know is that he collided with Vinnie Johnson. And when he collides with Vinnie Johnson, he's gotta be hurt."

"I'm sure not gonna say an injury decided that game," Kevin McHale added. "We had a lotta injured people out there. Injuries are part of the game. Unfortunately, he couldn't play with his.

"It's not like I'm gonna say I feel so sorry for him I'm gonna cry. It's all part of the game."

Before the game, Dantley could be seen during warmups with a contraption designed to help loosen his back strapped to his waist. Like most everybody else, he was ailing long before tipoff.

A couple of Washingtonians asked about the game's significance. Was it more important than his helping end UCLA's 88-game winning streak when he was at Notre Dame?

"Yes," he said.

How about beating Larry Wright and Western High School for the city championship at DeMatha?

Dantley laughed.

In some of the earlier games, Dantley had dominated the first quarter. The strategy of the Pistons was to give him the ball and get out of his way. That usually fetched lots of points.

This time, the smart Celtics were not going to tolerate such a thing. Detroit might get lots of early points, but they wouldn't come from Dantley.

Dennis Johnson was assigned primary coverage, with Larry Bird scampering over for double-team duty whenever the ball arrived in Dantley's hands. So Dantley became a passer, with Joe Dumars eventually scoring.

If it were hockey being played, Dantley might have had 15 assists by the end of the second period. Because only the last pass counts in basketball, the ones by Dantley that started the chain-reaction field goals by Dumars went unrecorded.

When Dantley got kayoed, teammate John Salley had a chance to put the Pistons into the lead from the foul line. He missed both. Probably, the Pistons are kicking themselves more for throwing away Game 5 here than for Saturday's loss.

Saturday night, Dantley was occupied by other concerns.

"Now I know what Roger Staubach was talking about," he said.

Come again?

"All those concussions. Why he got out of football."