Ben Wallace wore his hair in the Afro, and when a man’s hair rises, can the man do any less? So Wallace stood up Thursday night, nearly taking the game over, and Rasheed Wallace, bad foot and all, stood up, too, and Rip Hamilton stood up and Chauncey Billups stood up. They all stood up and stared into the snarling dragon of this Game 7, then they dropped baskets down its throat until it choked.
And when the last horn sounded, and the dragon was dead, the Palace fans stood up, too. They stood for this group of tireless, gritty players, and watched them leap into the rare air of the NBA’s Final Four and the sweet, sweaty glow of a challenger that conquers its nemesis.
“After getting swept by them last year, and having to sit through it all summer, in my mind I didn’t want to play anyone else,” Hamilton said when the Pistons had at last vanquished New Jersey in this second-round playoff series. “I wanted to play the team that beat us, and beat them back.”
Done. Final score, 90-69. A series that took almost three weeks to complete, a series that was like a college course in perseverance, is finally, blissfully, over. School’s out. What the Nets taught the Pistons last year they learned and learned well. You can’t let those guys run, you must squeeze Jason Kidd, and if you’re gonna beat them, you have to outshoot them.
Done, done and — thank the gods — they’re done. Shooting 18 more shots, dropping three-pointers like coins in a shopping mall fountain, getting huge efforts from nearly all their key players, and squashing the Nets into terrible shooting and poisonous turnovers — and zero points for Kidd — the Pistons pulled away from the team they had worn like a shadow for six previous games and, defying sore feet, bad backs and gnawing doubts, they blew that team away.
And as they jogged off to thunderous applause, you could almost hear the songs of freed schoolchildren.
No more Kenyon, no more Kidd, don’t care what Scalabrine did! . . .
“They broke our hearts last year,” coach Larry Brown said. “We’ll think about the next round tomorrow. Tonight, I want us to enjoy this one.”
Quite a night at the Palace
Wild? It was wild. Loud? It was deafening. Star-studded? It was, for Detroit, a heavyweight prizefight meets a Hollywood premiere. Everybody who was anybody in Detroit was there, and anybody who wanted to be anybody tried. Some big Detroit sports names were in the house — Yzerman, Mariucci, Lewis, Izzo — along with no less a rap star than Jay-Z.
But when the game began, they blended into the blurry mass of thundering ThunderStix. This, Thursday night, is what home-court advantage is supposed to sound like, folks:
The building exploded when Billups hit a three-pointer for the Pistons’ first lead.
It exploded when Hamilton hit his first shot — another long three-pointer — which swelled the lead to eight.
It exploded when Ben Wallace tossed a lay-up off the glass for a 13-point lead, and when another Billups trey made it 15, and when another Wallace jumper made it 19, and when another Billups bomb made it 22 and when a Wallace put-back monster jam made it 24. Shoot. Scream! Shoot. Scream! It was like feeding fish to those SeaWorld dolphins. Never enough. Always grateful.
A word here about Ben Wallace. He was insane. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, he morphs into a shooting guard. He hit eight of his first nine shots, many of them outside jumpers, he finished with 18 points, and this was in addition to snaring rebounds out of the hands of his opponents with his bulky frame. We saw, Wednesday night, how a superstar steps up when Kevin Garnett had a monster game to lead Minnesota to a Game 7 victory?
Wallace did no less.
“It was Game 7,” he said afterward in the press area, holding his baby son on his lap. “If we were gonna go down, we were gonna go down swinging.
“But if you had told me we were gonna blow this team out in Game 7, I would have said you were crazy.”
What about the defense, you ask? The hallmark of this team? Oh, it was there all right. In the hounding of the Nets stars — they shot 36 percent, Kidd was blanked, while Billups had 22 — in the saving of rebounds, in the intercepted passes, in the blocked shots, in the 16 turnovers.
But let’s be honest. New Jersey never found its “A” game on this night. Open shots were missed. Even fast-break lay-ups were missed. And whether it was the Pistons’ pressure, or the magnitude of the evening, we won’t know and, in the end, won’t care. You come into a Game 7, you better leave everything out there.
The Nets simply didn’t bring enough to leave.
Which is why they are leaving.
A big hurdle with Indiana
“We don’t just want to get to the next round,” Hamilton warned. “We want to go beyond it.”
Good point. Funny, isn’t it? There was no trophy won Thursday night. No cup awarded. No parade hung in the balance. It was, truth be told, nothing more than surviving the halfway point of the NBA playoffs.
But for some reason, it resonated much larger. Perhaps because after a decade as Hockeytown, Detroit was rediscovering its addiction to basketball.
Maybe we just weren’t ready for baseball season yet.
Or maybe it’s because this series sucked you in, because it was as long as a family feud. As long as a doctorate class in Russian literature. The only change in the last three weeks has been the home versus away uniforms. It was starting to feel as if I-75 ran directly into the Jersey turnpike, as if Bob Seger lived up the block from Bruce Springsteen. Merge, morph, meld. Detroit. New Jersey. Jetroit. Dew Trersey.
Not anymore. The Nets have been jettisoned like the unneeded section of a rocket ship, and Detroit will ride the propulsion as far into space as it can take it.
But let’s be clear. In winning this game, the Pistons have only, at best, matched their watermark of last season, reaching the conference finals. They got there last May, then lost four straight to these Nets. If they lose four straight to the Indiana Pacers, things will be no different, no matter how good everyone feels this morning.
Having said that, please do celebrate the dethroning of the two-time Eastern Conference champs. New Jersey was a better team than its seed or its record suggested. The Nets played like it most of these playoffs.
Which is good for the Pistons. They slogged and trudged and hammered and ploughed for every point and every victory these last few weeks. They may be tired — they surely are tired — but they are also tested.
Now comes a new test, Indiana, against an old coach, Rick Carlisle. You thought Larry Brown and Lawrence Frank had some dustups in the media? Just wait until a week from now, when we cannot resist comparing Carlisle’s performance to the job Brown is doing.
But that is in the future. The story today is that there is a future. These Pistons are growing up before our eyes, and don’t bet against how far they can go. This is a pretty special brass ring they’re trying to pluck, it’s true. But when they stand up, as they did Thursday night, they stand pretty tall.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org