Simple. Throw the ball in. Catch it. Cradle it like a baby. Get fouled. That's it.
That's all the Detroit Pistons had to do. Throw the ball in, catch it, get fouled. End of game.
They had a 107-106 lead against the Boston Celtics in the Boston Garden with five seconds left in Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals in 1987. They had the ball. They certainly had the momentum after a rookie named Dennis Rodman blocked a driving shot from a superstar named Larry Bird just seconds earlier, giving the Pistons possession. They were a heartbeat away from a 3-2 lead in the series with Game 6 at home, a great chance to close out the series and move closer to their first NBA Finals appearance.
So as Isiah Thomas stood on the baseline, holding the ball aloft on the inbounds play, looking for one of his teammates, it all looked so simple. The Pistons were even celebrating on the court and on the bench, hugging and slapping each other.
As the Celtics line up defensively, the reliable Thomas looks to pass to one of his teammates. His options are limited. Guard Joe Dumars is a little too far away, on the other side of the lane. So Thomas holds the ball, looking. Pistons coach Chuck Daly immediately senses a problem and calls timeout. But none of his players hear him. He begins screaming, "Time!" Still, no one hears.
None of the Pistons, not even heady, intelligent players like Thomas, Dumars and center Bill Lambeer illustrate the presence of mind to call a timeout; if they did, they will be able to inbound the ball from halfcourt, rather than near the Celtics' basket, a move that would at least reduce the odds of anything disastrous happening.
Meanwhile, Thomas sees Rodman circling near midcourt, but he hesitates and decides not to throw the ball to the poor-shooting Rodman. The five-second clock is down to two. Bird, meanwhile, is covering Adrian Dantley just inside the free-throw line and eyeing Thomas in one eye, Laimbeer in the other.
Bird knows Thomas is going to pass the ball to the sure-handed Laimbeer. So Bird fakes as if he is going to cover Rodman, waits a beat, and just when Thomas commits himself to pass the ball in toward Laimbeer, Bird makes his move, leaping out and bursting in front of Laimbeer.
"I started counting down the seconds in my head," Bird would later explain. At the precise moment that Bird breaks toward Laimbeer, Thomas lobs a weak, lazy, pass.
"I should have thrown the ball harder or Bill should have come in for it," Thomas would later admit.
Then comes a flash -- a green and white blur. "At first, I was going to foul Laimbeer," Bird would say later. "I thought that if I fouled him right away, there would still be four seconds left and even if he made the shots, we'd still have a chance to tie the game with a three."
But to the astonishment of the basketball world, Bird swipes the ball. "He just came from nowhere," Dumars would say. "All of a sudden he was in the picture. I tried to block it, but couldn't."
Celtics guard Jerry Sichting would later say, ''Larry suckered Isiah into making the pass. He was guarding Dantley on the other side of the lane, then started leaning toward Lambeer and Isiah didn't see him."
At the precise moment that Bird makes his move, Celtics point guard Dennis Johnson, stationed near the top of the key, anticipates a Bird steal and cuts down the lane, toward the basket. As Bird steals the pass, he maintains enough balance on one foot, enabling him to stay inbounds. He then fires a flawless bullet pass to DJ streaking toward the hoop.
"To make the steal was great enough," Celtics forward Kevin McHale said later. "But to then have the presence of mind to make a perfect pass to D.J. ... Amazing."
"Isiah's pass just hung up there," Bird would say. "It seemed to take forever to get to Laimbeer. [After stealing the pass], I was thinking about shooting, but the ball was going the other way and so was my momentum." If he shot the ball, he knew it would be an awkward, off-balance, low-percentage pray that would have little chance of hitting the cylinder.
Johnson, meanwhile, catches Bird's sizzling pass and lays the ball in smoothly off the glass as the Garden goes absolutely batty. After DJ scores, the Celtics smother Bird and jubilantly race off the court, knowing they just completed one of the most stunning and improbable last-ditch comebacks in sports history, leaving the Pistons to ponder their fate and astonishing defeat.
"When Bird stole it, I was just frozen there. I couldn't move," Rodman said afterwards. "This is the only building in the world that this could happen. The only one."
Detroit does win Game 6, but the Celtics take Game 7 to advance to the NBA Finals.