AN OBVIOUS question: Who were these guys?

These couldn’t have been the same Pistons who crawled under the tires of the Atlanta Hawks the previous two playoff games. The crushed-by-Mt. Mutombo Pistons? The can’t-break-70-point Pistons? Where’d they go? Who were these guys?

Who was this Lindsey Hunter? Not the Lindsey Hunter from Games 1 and 2. That Lindsey Hunter couldn’t buy a basket and couldn’t finish a play. That Lindsey Hunter heard his father call him up after Game 2 and say, in so many words,
“You were terrible.” And that was his father!

This Lindsey Hunter, the one playing Wednesday night, was, for my money, the best player out there — when the game was in hottest contention — doing the noticeable big things, like nine points in the first half, and the more important small things, like cutting in front of Atlanta passes for steals, leaping over taller players for rebounds, diving for loose balls, drawing offensive fouls.

Who was this guy?

And who was this Bison Dele? This could not have been the same Bison Dele from the first two games. That Bison played like, well, a bison. Slow, lumbering and completely out of it. This Bison played as if failure meant death. He scored the first basket of the night — which instantly gave him more points than he had in Game 2. He threw a hook over Dikembe Mutombo. He grabbed a rebound. He charged a loose ball. He stole a pass, then rattled the rim on another slam over Mutombo.

He had 12 points and seven rebounds in the first half. He even blocked a Mutombo shot, which is sort of like catching a refrigerator.

“What was the difference tonight?” he was asked after a 79-63 victory kept the Pistons alive in this best-of-five series.

“Home cooking,” he said.

In that case, big man, bring on the pumpkin pie.

The truth is, Dele had to play better. He couldn’t have played worse. His teammates were glaring at him. The fans were booing him. I wrote a pretty severe column after his no-show performance in Game 2.

“Maybe you could write that again on Friday morning?” asked Grant Hill.

Call my editor.

Taking nothing for Granted

Speaking of Hill, who was this guy? Not the Grant Hill who tried to carry the team in Game 1, scoring 26 points in 38 minutes. Wednesday’s Grant Hill lasted only 25 minutes, saddled with foul trouble. His best contribution was a bulldoze into Mutombo that knocked the mountain over. As a result, Hill would later describe himself as “Greg Kite.” I promise you, that is the last time you’ll hear those two in the same sentence.

“Were you worried that you might watch your season end tonight?” Hill was asked after the game.

“No,” he said, reaching behind him, “because I had this.”

He handed over a copy of Norman Vincent Peale’s “Why Some Positive Thinkers Get Powerful Results.” He pointed to the last chapter, “Happiness At Last.”

“I read up to here,” he said.

This is such a literate team.

Speaking of team, who were these guys doubling on Mutombo? Not the Pistons from Games 1 and 2, when they left Dikembe alone with one defender, which is like leaving a tree alone with a lumberjack.

The Game 3 Pistons had two men clinging to Mutombo whenever he tried a shot, pass or dribble. Which is why, after his wrecking crew numbers in the first two games (45 points and 32 rebounds) he took only four shots in Game 3 and made only one. Four shots?

Where was this defense in Games 1 and 2?

“We thought we could play him straight up,” admitted coach Alvin Gentry. “We were wrong. That’s on me.”

And as long as we’re talking Atlanta, who were these guys? The Hawks of the first two games won by 20 twice, and stopped scoring only because their arms got tired.

Wednesday’s Hawks had all the offense of a rock pile. You thought the Pistons’ 70 and 69 points were bad? The Hawks’ 63 was the second-lowest output in playoff history. Somewhere commissioner David Stern is researching the four-point basket.

The sounds of silence

One more obvious question: Where was everybody?

The Palace, at tip-off, was disgustingly empty. If there were 5,000 people there, it was a lot. Was this the NBA playoffs, or an aerobics class?

Three words for our sports fans: Shame on you. This could have been the final time the Pistons were introduced this season — and more important, the final time Joe Dumars laced up the sneakers. That alone should have demanded a sellout, instead of the mere 14,812 tickets sold — which is far more than were actually there.

This was the smallest Pistons playoff crowd ever at the Palace. And there were seats as low as $10 available! Come on. This was the first NBA playoff game here in two years. They should have drawn 20,000 on curiosity.

Instead, the Pistons had to crank up themselves. Of course, you could argue, that’s what they’re paid to do. Or, until Wednesday, what Dele seemed paid not to do.

So let’s make a deal. Fans show up to cheer Friday night. Pistons show up to win Friday night. And I’ll take the day off while my editor runs the Dele column again.

What? You have a problem with that?

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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