AHEAD OF THE PACE

It was tight and tense and there was an exhausted, sweaty feeling that whoever scored the next basket would emerge with a victory.

Unfortunately, this was the first quarter.

After an opening stretch only their mothers could love — and I believe even some of them switched over to “American Idol” — the Pistons and Pacers battled fiercely for the right to hit something other than the backboard, until finally, in the closing minutes, we actually had us a bona fide basketball game, with shots going in, great assists, a lead shrunk to one point, and some really clutch moments.

And when it finally ended, it ended fittingly, with Rasheed Wallace making a huge shot, Ben Wallace putting back a Rasheed miss, Ben playing great defense, forcing a dish off to Al Harrington, whose shot was blocked by — who else? — Rasheed, who saved the ball, then tossed it to — who else? — Ben.

Where there’s a will, there’s a Wallace. They were the big men and the big story of this unusual night. Between them they had almost half the Pistons points (37), more than half their rebounds (20) and an awful lot of their highlights. On a night when beauty was hard to find, these were performances suitable for framing.

“Both of them were great,” coach Larry Brown said after the 85-78 victory Wednesday night that gave Detroit a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. “I thought Rasheed did a great job. And what can you say about Ben?”

Here’s what. He had 17 points — more than all but one of the Pacers — and he had 16 rebounds, nearly twice that of any Pacer.

And Rasheed? Well, here was the game Pistons fans had been waiting for. Since the playoffs began, Wallace has been hobbled by a foot injury. But Wednesday at the Palace, he was suddenly fluid, smooth, sleek, turning and firing as if in a single motion. Did he go to Lourdes in between games? He slammed the ball. He laid it in. He hit straight-up jumpers and turnaround jumpers and converted three-point plays. He made some beautiful assists, too, a bounce pass, a magician’s dish, a lob — and don’t forget two steals and a key block.

And then, with 92 seconds left, he made the signature play of the game, a turnaround jumper over Austin Croshere that fell through as a whistle blew. Rasheed’s free throw turned a one-point lead into a four-point lead, and the game was essentially iced.

“Rasheed has been doing a great job,” Ben Wallace said. “When I see a guy go out there hurting like he is and still banging, it inspires me to try and play harder.”

Where there’s a will, there’s a Wallace.

More turnovers than points

Now, despite the fine finish by these two teams — the last quarter featured 62 points — no doubt critics will remember the first half, which featured, let’s admit it, some of the clunkiest basketball the playoffs have seen in a while.

How ugly was it? The game began with back-to-back shot clock violations, followed by an air ball, then a blocked shot. And we call that “the productive period.”

The first half featured the lowest scoring quarter ever by a Pistons playoff team — nine points — and the remarkable thing is, the whole time, they never surrendered the lead.

Here’s a question. How many times can you have more turnovers (10) than points (nine) in a quarter and still have a six-point lead at halftime? How many times can you go 7 1/2 minutes without a point and still never lose your dominant position?

“I told them at halftime, any other team does what we did in the second quarter, they’d be down by 20 points,” Brown said.

But any other team wasn’t playing Indiana, which was in danger of leaving the NBA for the NBR (Nothing But Rim). Until the fourth quarter Wednesday, the Pacers had gone five straight periods without breaking the 20-point mark. Reggie Miller didn’t have a shot in the entire first half. Ron Artest was so intent on not hitting anything with the basketball, that after he fired two air balls, he threw a pass to Miller — after Miller turned his back.

Welcome to the Eastern Conference finals. Our motto: “Shooting is overrated; it’s the dribbling that counts.”

Too many weapons

Ah, well. Who cares if the rest of the country thinks this is some sort of sleep-inducing experiment? The Pistons are now two victories from the NBA Finals. They already have surpassed what they did last season — when they were swept in this round — and you have the feeling that if they play the way they did in the first quarter Wednesday, there is really no way Indiana can stay with them. The Pacers are plodding, and the Pistons can do plodding.

But when Rasheed is on his game — along with Rip Hamilton’s consistent scoring, Chauncey Billups’ contributions, Tayshaun Prince’s major moments and, of course, the Big Ben muscle — it just seems like one too many weapons for Indiana to handle.

So they await Game 4 now, and whatever adjustments the Pacers can make. (Here’s a few sentences for Rick Carlisle to try: “This is a ball. It goes in the basket. . . .”)

Final score, 85-78. It was a night to forget, until it became a night to remember. And what made it so was the twin headbands, the giant pairing, who put on such a good show, it almost made you forget the stat sheet.

“We fed off the crowd tonight,” Hamilton said. “We played good team basketball. But mostly we just tried to feed off the emotion of Rasheed and Ben.”

Where there’s a will, there’s a Wallace.

Halfway home.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This