AUBURN HILLS, MICH. -- The line between hubris and heroism often is stretched paper thin in sports. Without an incredibly high level of arrogance and audacity, it is impossible to do remarkable deeds under abnormal pressure. However, an iota too much gall and you become a goat, an egomaniac and a curse to your teammates.

As he has aged into a superb maturity, Isiah Thomas has learned exactly when to unveil his athletic arrogance and turn it into the dependable coin of heroism. Now, in his 10th NBA season, the Detroit Pistons' guard -- like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the NBA finals before him -- knows exactly when to forget all those cliches about "team" being a word that contains no "I."

Without the "I" in Isiah, the world champion Pistons would have lost the first game of the 1990 finals Tuesday and the home-court advantage with it. With less than seven minutes to play, Detroit trailed Portland, 90-80. The Pistons were an exhausted team being thoroughly outplayed. The Trail Blazers had, in fact, never trailed.

The Pistons called time out. They didn't have to say, "Isiah, please." Everybody knew.

"We were belly up, dead in the water, when Isiah took over," said Detroit Coach Chuck Daly. "He played one of those magic 10 minutes when he was on fire and bailed us out."

At the same moment when Detroit made the perfect decision -- go to Thomas -- Trail Blazers Coach Rick Adelman made a disastrous choice. Portland's weakness is its young bench, especially guard Danny Young and forward Cliff Robinson, who looked lost all night. With a chance to win an enormously important game, Adelman led from weakness, not strength; he left Young and Robinson in the game. Before he could get them out, Thomas had hit two quick jump shots and dished off an assist as the Pistons cut the lead to 92-89 and awakened their dormant crowd.

"Isiah can take over even when he's dead-tired and totally fatigued," said Daly. "And he did it again tonight."

But the crowd helped enormously. "I got an energy burst from somewhere," said Thomas. "Earlier I was missing layups because I just didn't have enough energy to get it to the hole. But the crowd was into it and I fed off them."

Thomas has had countless nights of glory in a career full of 20-point, 10-assist games. But even Thomas hasn't had many explosions better than the 2:28 burst that he laid on the Trail Blazers.

At 4:18, when Thomas made a steal, Detroit still trailed, 94-89. At 1:50, when he nailed a brazen in-your-face three-point bomb from in front of the Pistons' bench, Detroit led, 99-94, and the game was over emotionally.

Thomas had outscored Portland, 10-0.

Two foul shots. A three-pointer. Another long bomb, from just inside the line. Then that final three-pointer.

Thomas, who finished with 33 points, is supposed to be a driver first, a disher second and a pure shooter down the line. His career shooting percentage (.459) is nowhere close to the general level of his game. But when he needed to stick it from the street, he did. The final score (105-99) felt like a formality.

Thomas might have given the Trail Blazers the kiss of death Tuesday night, but nobody who was here thinks the Pistons are safe. In fact, many suspect that they are in deep trouble.

The Trail Blazers probably left a wake-up call for most of America's hoop fans Tuesday. These NBA finals just became mandatory viewing for sports nuts. And lots of others too. Those who love pro basketball know that the Trail Blazers won 59 games this season, the same number as the Pistons. But to those who follow such matters less devotedly, several Portland players -- Jerome Kersey, Kevin Duckworth and Terry Porter -- remain somewhat mysterious. Only Clyde Drexler and Buck Williams are long-established, nationally known stars.

That should change. The Pistons are well and truly scared. And the Trail Blazers know which way the wind is blowing.

"We were the struggling team all night long," said Daly. "We looked like a dead-tired club . . . . We have to recoup, energy-wise and I don't know how. . . . . It's knockdown drag-out time now. I'm afraid that's how it's going to be {all series}. . . . We were lucky to win one like that. They're very athletic. They'll be back."

Oddly, Portland sounded cocky after this battle. Except for its essentially nonexistent bench, Portland did everything it set out to do. The 7-foot Duckworth pushed Bill Laimbeer around like a child. Drexler had no problem penetrating. Kersey and even Williams, not known for offense, could get their shots whenever they wanted. Only Porter seemed daunted by Detroit's daunting defense.

"Everything was clicking on all cylinders all night," said Williams. "I thought we were playing back in the Western Conference. We had the {fast} tempo we wanted. . . .

"I don't think they're head-and-shoulders above anybody else as far as being physical. They're just a very sound defensive team."

"We did exactly what we wanted to do for 43 minutes," said Adelman, throwing down the gauntlet. "Except for rebounding, which is what we usually do best. . . . We learned a hard lesson."

Then, Adelman added some enigmatic but pointed words. "I think they now think this is going to be tougher than they thought. We know we can score against them."

No team in the NBA has dared to think that, much less say it, for the past three years.

Will this Thomas victory haunt the Trail Blazers? Will it be the one that got away? Or was Tuesday the night the Trail Blazers looked the Bad Boys in the eye in The Palace and controlled a vital game for the first 43 minutes? Tuesday evening, the Trail Blazers looked slightly bigger, slightly quicker and slightly more athletic than the Pistons. Was that just the two extra off-days the Trail Blazers enjoyed?

Despite all the Trail Blazers' optimism in defeat, the champion Pistons emerged with two solid causes for repeat hope: Their bench, especially Mark Aguirre (18 points in 28 minutes), appears enormously better than the Trail Blazers'. And, in the closing minutes, when most championships are decided, they always know where they can turn -- to the little point guard with a baby's face and a killer's heart.