It was coming down like hot wax, drip, drip, another fourth-quarter lead, another wild crowd, all melting away in concert with the clock, as if the whole thing had been orchestrated ahead of time. An 11-point lead whittled away like a stick on the wrong end of a penknife. Turnovers. Missed shots. Missed free throws. Booing the refs.

And finally, on Tuesday, as it did on Sunday, the final Pistons shot missed the mark — this time a long jumper by Chauncey Billups into the outstretched body of Jason Kidd — and even the margin of defeat was the same.

Two points down.

Two games down.

Two bad. You can’t win if you can’t hold a lead at home. It’s a combination of New Jersey attitude and Detroit self-destruction. But it has put the Pistons in a hole that looks awfully deep this morning. This series is no longer about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but about surviving the storm to glimpse the rainbow at all.

“It seems like they turn our negatives into their positives awful fast,” said Tayshaun Prince, after the spirit-crushing 88-86 defeat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Didn’t we already see this script? The Nets look beaten. The Pistons look confident. And then a series of little things, little slips, a botched play here, a missed free throw there, and New Jersey is grinning on the far end of the court like the hole in the pinball machine that knows the ball is coming, it’s a matter of gravity.

Kenyon Martin scored easily over Mehmet Okur, drew a foul, then did the whole drill again, en route to 16 points in the final period. Kidd drove around and under Ben Wallace for a lay-up. Richard Jefferson hit three free throws.

Meanwhile, on the other end, Jon Barry tried to drive and draw a foul — no dice — and he tried it again and got stripped — no foul again, but a technical on Barry. Wallace took a jump shot, which is often a sign that things have clanked to a halt. Corliss Williamson missed. Cliff Robinson missed. And before you knew it, the Pistons were out of chances and out of time.

“Forget the last play,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “It shouldn’t come down to the last play when you have a lead at home. Turnovers. Technical fouls. Things you can’t do when you’re at this level of the playoffs.”

Two points. Two games. Two losses.

Two bad.

No margin for error

“We’re not glamour team,” Nets coach Byron Scott said after this one was over.
“We play defense just like they do. Hopefully we’ll get some credit for that now.”

Forgive us, Byron, if the Pistons don’t spend time this morning giving credit. When you give up 30 points in the fourth quarter after giving up no more than 20 in any of the first three, credit isn’t what you have in mind. Kicking yourself is more like it.

And there’s plenty of boots to go around.

Robinson can kick himself for numerous drops and misses and defensive lapses in crucial situations. Williamson can kick himself for missing free throws and a key basket at the end. Billups can kick himself for several lazy passes that he’d want back, stolen by Kidd. Wallace can kick himself for missing two more key free throws in the closing minutes. And Barry, with that technical foul — well, no point in telling Barry. He’s probably ripped his own head off by now.

Here’s the simple truth, folks: There are teams that use a cushion and teams that are threadbare, and the Pistons are the latter when it comes to points. There are simply none to spare. The cupboard is always down to its last can of soup. The refrigerator is always a leftover sandwich and a box of baking soda. In such dire straits, there is little room for charity. So when the Pistons start giving points away they are in trouble.

But here they were Tuesday night at the Palace, handing it over. Lazy passes. A terrible rebounding differential. (Jersey had 19 offensive rebounds, giving the Nets all kinds of second chances.) And some bad shooting — with the exception of Richard Hamilton, who almost single-handedly kept the Pistons in this thing.

These are lapses that are fine for the Dallas Mavericks. They are expected of the Dallas Mavericks. But the Dallas Mavericks come down court after their faux pas and launch three-pointer after three-pointer and hit them all. The Pistons have to make an appointment for that kind of offense.

Did they lose by much? No. Just two points.

That only makes it worse.

Two bad.

Bad time for a road trip

“We got ourselves into this,” said backup guard Chucky Atkins, “and we have to get ourselves out.”

The sad part was, the Pistons held Jersey much of the night to a terrible shooting percentage, but couldn’t pull ahead. And they didn’t capitalize when the lineups suggested they could. At the start of the second quarter, for example, the Nets had this lineup: Lucious Harris, Anthony Johnson, Rodney Rogers, Brian Scalabrine and Aaron Williams. I wanted security to check their passports.

But in more than four minutes against this less-than-second-string, the Pistons — using strong players like Wallace, Okur and Atkins — could manage only a two-point differential. You don’t strike when the iron is hot, you get hit with it on the head. And that’s what happened.

So the second-guessing begins. Carlisle will be second-guessed for the lineup he used most of the fourth quarter. He took Hamilton out when he was the only hot shooter. He kept in Robinson, who has just been a disaster in crucial moments. And Barry added little. Prince started the game instead of Michael Curry, but he wasn’t there for most of the finish, playing only one minute in the fourth quarter.

Of course, had the Pistons won, Carlisle would be hailed for his adjustments. Two points make that kind of difference. Besides, Carlisle also needs no help in introspection. He knows how beatable Jersey is, how close the Pistons came, and how deadly giving away games at home can be.

So now they hit the road, where they have been none too good in the playoffs. There is no point in criticizing them any further. This is not about winning the series anymore. It’s about proving you can beat this team once. It’s about shaking up the Nets’ eight-playoff-games-in-a-row confidence. It’s about turning Two Bad into One In the Pocket. Twice in these playoffs, the Pistons have won road games that no one expected them to win. Thursday night, they’ll have to do it again. Coming back from adversity is always a test of character. When it’s adversity you created yourself, it’s even tougher.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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