BRING ON LEHEAT!

He is the youngest man in the starting lineup, so if anyone was going to have more chances at a ring it was him.

But Sunday, Tayshaun Prince played as if the last lights of his life were in that basket, as if another chance might never come. Minute after minute, in a Game 7 where nerves seemed to paralyze even the greatest players’ limbs, Prince was loose and free as an eagle, scoring the first points of each half, soaring for blocks, for critical rebounds, for drives that took him through a redwood forest of Cavaliers but finished with the ball falling though the net.

This series began with Prince besting LeBron (King) James in Auburn Hills. It ended that way, too.

It’s LeBron’s world.

But it’s Prince’s Palace.

“He is definitely the biggest reason we won this game tonight,” said Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ president of basketball operations, after Detroit finally – finally! – ousted the surprising Cavaliers, 79-61, to advance to the Eastern Conference finals against Miami. “And he may be the reason we won this series.”

All Prince did Sunday was play 47 minutes, lead the team in scoring (20 points), offensive rebounds (four) and critical moments. Yes, Lindsey Hunter had a special spurt late in the third quarter that energized the Pistons and pushed them to a bigger lead. But Prince was there before Lindsey and after him. And he made sure that lead held true.

Here was Tayshaun just after halftime, when the game was tighter than a noose, hitting the first basket, grabbing two rebounds, blocking Eric Snow’s shot, hitting three free throws.

Here was Tayshaun in the fourth quarter, drawing an offensive foul on Donyell Marshall, dishing the ball to Hunter for a three-pointer, grabbing a rebound, then another rebound, getting fouled and still making his free throws (unlike most of his teammates on this pressured afternoon).

Here was Tayshaun, less than nine minutes left, making a highlight move, spinning to the baseline, slithering in, missing, grabbing the rebound and putting it back, a 12-point lead.

The building erupted. The Cavs called time out.

They could have called the bus driver.

The King was done.

The Prince – and the Pistons – were moving on.

The 48-minute man

“I knew I wasn’t coming out,” Prince said after the game was over. “I felt great today. I knew if I could stay aggressive things would come to me. … I was gonna play 48 minutes no matter what. I think if” Flip Saunders “had sent someone to the scorer’s table, I’d have sent him back.”

Did you know that Prince played nearly 303 minutes in this series, 20 minutes more than the next closest Piston? Much of that time, he was forced to cover James, an assignment that could wear out any mortal man.

But Prince is an anomaly. He’s a calm head atop long arms and legs, filed with tireless energy and a severe focus. He may look like a Bazooka comics character, all gangly limbs and an open-mouthed, wide-eyed expression, but he’s as savvy as they come.

“Once you’re in the NBA playoffs,” Dumars said, “what becomes paramount is poise, intelligence, focus and the ability to make the adjustment on the fly. He does all of that. So it’s no surprise that playoff series after playoff series people say, ‘Why is Tayshaun playing so good?’ “

On Sunday, it wasn’t just the good that counted, it was the groove. Let’s be honest. Cleveland put a scare into the Pistons in this second-round series. It wasn’t just the Cavs’ three unexpected victories in a row. Cleveland was tough and relentless and, until the end, fearless. Even an early offensive explosion by Detroit – at one point the Pistons led, 19-6 – didn’t keep the Cavs from coming back and all but tying this thing by halftime. The Pistons, at the break, had six turnovers and just seven assists and had missed 10 free throws. Ten free throws? Can we say “tight?” The ball movement wasn’t what they wanted. There was a lot of dumping in and standing around.

But sometimes it just takes one worker bee to stir the hive. After Prince helped shake the stiffness, his teammates came alive, they grabbed critical rebounds, they clamped down defensively – LeBron only had six points in the second half. And when the buzzer sounded and the fans roared, the Pistons found themselves where they figured they would be when this Midwestern showdown began two weeks earlier:

Coming out the other side.

Heading to the conference finals.

For the fourth year in a row.

A new rite of spring

Now, before we say good-bye to the Cavs, let’s make note that this was the beginning of something, not the end. Assuming LeBron stays in Cleveland, he will be back every year come playoff time. Before this series, we knew he was special in the skills department. We now know, at 21, he’s special in the creativity, endurance, toughness and maturity departments.

“The reason why he’s different than so many other players in this league,” Prince said, “is that there’s nobody at his level that gets his teammates the ball the way he does. He sees plays coming before they even happen. That’s just instinct and God-given talent. That’s why this series went to seven games. He’s a special player.”

It’s good to hear Prince speaking that way about James, because it’s likely we’ll see them playing each other for many years to come. In some ways, this is a reincarnation of Michael Jordan’s coming of age with Chicago, when the Bulls banged against the Pistons every spring.

In those days, Jordan, LeBron’s aerial ancestor, was checked every year – pretty handily – by a guy named Dumars. Now Dumars looks at Prince with a sense of near-nostalgia.

“I wouldn’t argue with you,” Dumars said, laughing, when someone suggested that Tayshun was sort of a taller, longer version of Joe in his playing days. “I would not argue.”

And things worked out OK for Joe, didn’t they?

So, OK. It’s Miami’s turn. There is no predicting what will happen next. Maybe this series scared the Pistons straight, maybe they keep the gas pedal pressed every night now. Or maybe they are simply vulnerable to nights when their shooting goes cold and their bench dries up. We’ll have to see.

For now, they have done what they do best: survived the toughest test. A king may outrank a prince, but a team of determined soldiers can take any throne.

Eight victories down. Eight to go.

Is it just me, or will it be awhile before a Detroiter takes a visit to Cleveland?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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