Just in case the Lakers and Boston Celtics are ready to drop down to the level of the rest of the National Basketball Assn., the Detroit Pistons are ready to take over.
One of the reasons is that Adrian Dantley, in his second season with the team, has become its star.
In a showdown with the Chicago Bulls for first place in the tough Central Division on Tuesday night at Pontiac, Mich., Dantley led the way in a 127-123 overtime victory.
Michael Jordan sank a 21-foot, 3-point shot at the buzzer ending regulation to give the Bulls a 115-115 tie.
Dantley then took charge, scoring the first five points in overtime.
Jordan wouldn't let the Bulls fold, however. They scored six points in a row, the last two on a Jordan jumper for a 121-120 lead. But Rick Mahorn tipped in a missed shot and Bill Laimbeer, who had 29 points, made two free throws to ice it for Detroit.
Dantley finished with 27 points as the Pistons, despite 38 by Jordan, improved their record to 14-5, the best in the NBA. Although the Bulls made six more field goals than the Pistons, they kept fouling Dantley on the drive and he made 19 consecutive free throws.
For the first half of last season, Dantley didn't seem to figure in the Pistons' plans. He didn't play much, especially during crunch time.
But things have changed this season. Not only is the 31-year-old, 12-year veteran playing when the game is on the line, he's the one the Pistons turn to in the clutch.
It's just another case of hard work paying off for the 6-foot 5-inch forward, who began his career with Buffalo in 1976. He recently became the 13th player to score 20,000 points.
"I had some adjustments to make after coming here from Utah," Dantley said. "I found I had to work even harder in the off-season because the Eastern Conference is more physical. Now, I feel I belong."
Boston 122, Washington 102--Just before ending their three-game losing streak, at Landover, Md., the Celtics decided that Kevin McHale, still feeling pain in the foot he broke last season, should not play more than 24 minutes a game.
It seemed to be a good idea in this one. McHale, playing exactly half the game, scored 17 points (7-for-8 shooting) and had 8 rebounds to help the Celtics build a big early lead on their way to an easy victory.
"Sometimes, when I get up in the morning," McHale said, "it hurts so badly that I wonder why I'm still trying to play this game. Other times, it doesn't hurt at all. I think it's just a matter of time."
McHale was so sharp in the first three games in which he played, the Celtics thought he was way ahead of schedule. But he played 37 minutes against Denver last Wednesday and, against the Lakers on Friday, he was dragging.
Atlanta 93, Indiana 91--The Central Division is by no means a two-team battle. In fact, since Dominique Wilkins overcame nagging injuries, the Hawks have looked as good as any of them.
Wilkins scored 34 points in this game at Atlanta, including three baskets in a row in the closing minutes to hold off the Pacers.
"It wasn't a pretty game because we were slow and sluggish," Wilkins said. "But both teams wound up playing tough defense."
Steve Stipanovich led Indiana, scoring 14 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter. He also had 13 rebounds.
New Jersey 104, San Antonio 98--Victories are few and far between this season for the Nets, so second-year forward Ben Coleman figures to cherish this one at East Rutherford, N.J.
Coleman scored a career-high 22 points, including four free throws in the last 29 seconds, and the Nets ended an 11-game losing streak with their third victory of the season.
The Spurs' four-game winning streak ended despite a career-high 29 points and 15 rebounds for Frank Brickowski, former Laker back-up center.
Milwaukee 103, New York 98--Veteran guard Sidney Moncrief made his first start of the season in this game at New York, but it took a sparkling performance by Paul Pressey to pull out the victory for the Bucks.
The Knicks built a 70-55 lead midway through the third quarter, but Pressey and Craig Hodges led a 20-2 spurt that put the Bucks back in the game.
Pressey, who sank two free throws with 3:06 remaining to give Milwaukee the lead for good, finished with 25 points and 13 assists.
In 28 minutes, Moncrief had only 7 points.
Cleveland 106, Dallas 93--For three quarters at Richfield, Ohio, it appeared that the Mavericks would win their second road game in a row.
But Brad Daugherty and rookie Kevin Johnson led a fourth-quarter surge that carried the Cavaliers to victory. With 8:21 left in the game, Dallas led, 81-77.
Johnson sank a 16-foot jump shot, Daugherty followed with a three-point play, and the Cavaliers led the rest of the way. Both Johnson and Daugherty had nine points in the last quarter.
Portland 128, Seattle 109--Jerome Kersey scored 24 points and Clyde Drexler added 23 at Portland, Ore., as the Trail Blazers, who took control of the game in the second quarter, beat the SuperSonics.
Seattle, playing its second road game in as many nights, closed within 11 points in the third quarter and pulled within eight at 97-89 on Xavier McDaniel's basket with 6:47 to play.
But Kersey sank an 18-footer and Drexler added a three-point play on a fast-break stuff to boost the lead back to 12. The Sonics never threatened again.