BETTER LATE …’SHEED SAVES SHOW FOR OT

PHILADELPHIA – So let’s be honest. He wasn’t there much of the game. He wasn’t his normal aggressive self. He wasn’t making shots or snagging rebounds. He wasn’t even screaming at the refs. At one point, his coach had to chide him to get with it, and had we stopped the game after three quarters, Rasheed Wallace would have had three baskets, three rebounds, and a whole lot of Chris Webber outplaying him.

“I could not hit a shot,” he would later say, “to save my life.”

But when it comes to saving lives, playoff basketball is like a teeter-totter: It’s not about your ups and down, it’s about getting off at the right time.

And that, Mr. Wallace did splendidly.

He hit the first basket of overtime and grabbed the first rebound. He hit a yawning three-pointer from 24 feet, and a minute later hit another from 25 feet, just to up the ante.

He would finish with eight points and two rebounds in the extra session, and fittingly, he was holding the ball high in the closing seconds, having grabbed it off of Philadelphia’s last best chance. Wallace wasn’t the straw that stirred the drink, but he was definitely the one that broke the camel’s back, that camel being the gutsy 76ers, and that back being their prayer of winning this series.

“In the beginning of the game, I couldn’t get into the flow,” Wallace admitted, after the Pistons survived a 97-92 sweatfest and locked down a 3-1 lead heading back for Game 5 of this playoff series Tuesday night. “But going into the overtime we knew they had momentum, so we had to make the first couple shots to put the pressure on them.”

Mission accomplished.

Pressure applied.

Everyone take a breath.

Give Iverson his props, too

For here was a game that the Pistons could easily have lost, had Wallace not come alive, or had Chauncey Billups (25 points) not stepped up in a marvelous back-and-forth battle with Allen Iverson down the stretch, or had Willie Green, a Philly super sub (not the kind with cold cuts) made a free throw in the closing seconds of regulation.

Yes. That’s how close the Pistons came to being all tied up. Green missed the first of two foul shots with 3.1 seconds left, then made the second, tying the score at 83 instead of giving his team the lead.

Had the Pistons been forced to make a basket, at that point, it would have been even money – at best.

“They made a lot of runs at us,” Larry Brown said afterward. “We had some guys with blank looks on their faces. I had to remind them at one point that they had won a world championship.”

You needed to remind the audience a few times, too. The early part of this game was Dropapalooza for the Pistons, with balls going off wrists, elbows and dancing fingers, shots clanking off the front of the rim, Ben Wallace leaving with two quick fouls, no points from the bench besides a handful from Antonio McDyess and a lot of wagging tongues as Iverson put on yet another dazzling dance of waterbug moves, long-range shooting, billiards-like bank shots and seeing-eye passes.

After Game 3, in which Iverson scored 37 points and dished 15 assists, people said, “Yeah, but he won’t do that again, so the Sixers won’t win.”

Uh, well, actually, he sort of did do that again. He had 36 points Sunday and eight assists.

But the Sixers didn’t win.

Thank Rasheed Wallace, Billups, and an awakened defense for that.

“They played championship basketball,” Iverson said. But he played like a champion. Honestly, could you watch these last two games, even as the most die-hard Pistons fan, and not come away shaking your head at how good Iverson is, how joyous he is to watch, scooting like a rabbit between an ogre’s feet? And Webber, yes, admit it, played a fine game as well. Had Rasheed not gotten his gold in overtime, Webber (23 points, eight rebounds) is the big man we’d be talking about this morning.

Pistons can end it Tuesday

“Did Rasheed surprise you at the end, considering how he played early on?” Brown was asked.

“I was on him,” Brown said. “He had (two) rebounds at halftime and one rebound all of last game. … But he’s so unselfish… And he hit some huge shots when the game was on the line.”

That he did. So did Billups, who in a league of high-profile point guards somehow doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Billups and Wallace are the kind of players that make Detroit so dangerous, because they keep a pilot light going even on off-nights, and all you need to do is throw the switch, even late, and …whummmph!

So the Pistons are about where they figured to be, coming home with a chance to wrap this up and maybe, maybe, get some rest. That’s important. In the third quarter Sunday, Tayshaun Prince, the most irreplaceable player on the squad, got tangled up with an opponent and went down hard. He banged his fist on the floor in frustration and Brown ran out with the trainers. At one point, as they tended to Prince’s ankle, Brown had his hand on Prince’s chest, as if making sure the heart was still beating.

Fortunately, Prince got up and got back to action. But you learn two things from that:

1) Never extend a series when you don’t have to, because playoffs are about survival and any simple play can lose you a soldier.

2) The heart is still beating, loud and clear.

On we go. Game 5 Tuesday. “I feel bad about this loss, ” Iverson said afterward, “but I feel good about my team.”

And minutes later, Brown said: “I feel good about my team.”

It was that kind of game. Two good efforts. A teeter-totter afternoon. But the Pistons got off at the perfect time, and the Sixers are looking for a soft place to land.

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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