A CLOCK IS NICE, BUT FREE THROWS ARE NICER

OK, OK, what do you want him to do? Give it back? Chauncey Billups was handed a three-point basket by a clock screwup. Fine. He got three free ones. Detroit won by seven.

No whining.

“It sucks to be on the other end of that,” Billups admitted of the play that ended the third quarter, a play that started under one basket and involved dribbling, passes, a dump-off and a Chauncey three-point bomb, yet on the clock only took less than a second.

I know basketball is a fast game.

It’s not that fast.

But the refs’ hands were tied, they can’t take points off the board in that situation. Besides, this victory was not about a clock, no matter how much Orlando fans may want to harp on it. Nor was it about any three-point shot, even though there were a ton of them at the Palace, especially by the Magic, who hit 11.

No, this was about Tayshaun Prince, skying for rebounds, blocks and a monster jam that he pulled out of the sky. It was about a rookie backcourt, Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo, holding its own while the starters rested. It was about having not one, not two, but four big guys to cover the mountain called Dwight Howard.

And it was about Billups hitting, yes …

… his free throws.

Doing all the little things

That’s right. Free throws. Boring, perhaps. But a point is a point, and on a night when points were coming in big bunches, going 10-for-10 from the line and 8-for-8 in the fourth quarter is a luxury you cannot overstate.

They gave him three free points?

He had 10 in the fourth quarter.

He earned his honors.

“We held serve and did what we’re supposed to do – finally,” Billups said after the 100-93 victory that gives Detroit a 2-0 series lead.

And we know what the “finally” means. The Pistons lost two of the first three to Philadelphia and had to scramble back to win that series, including the clincher on the road.

This is a much more pleasant route. Win your home games. Absorb their hard and desperate blows. And Orlando was a hard and desperate team. This was not Game 1. Not even close. The Magic had a 29-point quarter and a 36-point quarter, which already is pretty close to its total points (72) in the opener.

“They played well,” Rip Hamilton admitted. The Pistons played a tad better. It was hardly a perfect game, more an evening of spurts. The Pistons surged in the second – with rookies on the floor. The Magic surged in the third – hitting seven straight three-pointers.

But games are won in the final period, when Billups (28 points) had the ball in his hands. He drew fouls. He hit a leaner. He grabbed boards. And he hit eight free throws in the last 4:45.

How many playoff games see the balance change because somebody clangs the rim on a freebie? You think of the Shaqs or the Howards, the Achilles’ heels of their free-throw shooting.

And then there’s Chauncey. Mr. Swish.

No time to relax

There was a moment Monday where Billups drove to the hoop, got tangled with the defender and went crashing to the floor. He landed hard on his tailbone, banged his head and lay on the court for several seconds.

Then he got up, blinking, and hit … his free throws. Those kind of moments may not make “SportsCenter,” but they win games.

“My mother always said I had a hard head,” Billups joked. And now we’ll learn about the Pistons’ noggins. They’ve won five straight playoff games since their wake-up in Game 3 against the 76ers. It would be nice to see them carry this toughness to Florida and not succumb to the “aw-what’s-one-loss?” mentality.

For now, they took a red-hot shooting night, and they won anyhow. Not by a clock. Not by a gift. They did it the old-fashioned way. One play, one stop and one free throw at a time.

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