The Celtics couldn't stop Vinnie Johnson again Wednesday night at Boston, so they did what they have always done under duress in recent years, they turned to Larry Bird.
Bird, shaking off the effects of an aching elbow, scored 17 of his career-playoff-high 43 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Celtics to a 130-123 victory over Detroit and a 3-2 edge in the series.
The best-of-seven Eastern semifinal series shifts to Detroit Friday night with the Celtics needing a victory to earn the right to play Philadelphia. The 76ers are just sitting around resting enjoying the bitter battle between the Pistons and Celtics.
It was the ninth time in a row the Celtics beat the Pistons at Boston and marked the 15th consecutive time in the playoffs since 1962 that they won after going home tied, 2-2, in a series.
Johnson was 11 for 16 coming off the bench to follow his fantastic 11 for 12 in the final quarter Sunday that tied the series. He scored 16 off his 30 points in the second quarter to keep the Pistons in the battle.
In addition to Bird, it was superiority at the foul line that made the difference. The Pistons had the edge in field goals, 50-46, but the Celtics made 37 of 39 free-throw attempts to 22 of 28 for the Pistons. Bird set the pace by making all nine of his.
In the two games at Detroit that enabled the Pistons to tie the series, Bird was in a shooting slump. He sank only 18 of 43 shots from the field in the two games.
His shooting in this one wasn't exactly sensational (17 for 33), but unlike Sunday, when he made only one of six shots in the last quarter, Bird took charge in the final 10 minutes. It is what he has done most of his Celtic career, and the team has come to rely on him.
The Celtics were ahead, 97-92, two minutes into the final period when Bird scored his team's next nine points to build a 106-98 lead. And, when the Pistons battled back to cut the lead to 112-108, Bird made two driving layups to end their final threat.
Johnson's second-quarter burst put the Pistons only a point behind at halftime. But in the middle of the third quarter Bird scored six of the points in a 17-6 surge that gave the Celtics the lead for good.
Bird didn't think he was in a slump at Detroit. "I felt good about those games," he said. "A couple of shots I took looked like they were going in and dropped out. The same thing could have happened tonight, but, instead, they dropped in.
"The next game is going to be tough, and we're going to do what we have to do to win this series."
The Pistons were lavish in their praise of Bird, who is playing with bone chips in his right elbow.
"The guy comes to play hard every game," Detroit Coach Chuck Daly said. "When you're defending him you can't play 70 or 90%. You have to play 110% every game, just like he does. The guys playing him just have to play better, and then we can tie it up."
Each team has now won at home. If the Pistons can win Friday night, the final game will be played Sunday at Boston.
"The home court definitely makes a difference," Isiah Thomas, who had only 18 points and seven assists. "It makes you a better team when you have 20,000 people screaming for you instead of against you."
Maybe, but Larry Bird may decide otherwise Friday night.