CLEVELAND – As the pass came loping into Rasheed Wallace, over his shoulder flew LeBron James. He took the ball, and the last smidgeon of Detroit hope, and stole down the court with all of it, up to the hoop, off the glass, and into the Finals.

‘Bron Voyage.

On the first Saturday in June, on a warm sticky night by the Cuyahoga, the Cleveland Cavaliers threw the Detroit Pistons in the river and sent them up the creek. It was the end of a series and likely the end of an era for a Detroit team that won a lot, but never as much as it could have, that wears one ring, but stares longingly at empty fingers, that talks about poise, but lost all of it in the final quarter, like angry children, with Wallace – who else? – getting thrown out of the game and sent screaming up the tunnel, adding a second black eye to the one the Cavs had already delivered.

‘Bron Voyage. This time, it wasn’t the Chosen One scoring 25 straight points. In fact, James went nearly 28 minutes without making his first basket. No, this was even worse than a beating by the King. This was being beaten by the princes, the guards and, in the case of one flopping Brazilian, the court jester.

It was a childish-looking Daniel Gibson, at 21, the youngest player on the floor, thumbing his nose at all that Detroit experience, making one open three-pointer after another, scoring 31 points – with 19 in the last 12 minutes. It was the Frankenstein-large Zydrunas Ilgauskas, tapping back missed shots over flailing Detroit arms.

It was the Cleveland team beating the Detroit team, undeniably and decisively in, of all places, the fourth quarter, which once upon a time the Pistons used to own.

Not anymore. Detroit’s swagger is gone, along with its poise. Despite vows of confidence, of having been here before, this game was the worst loss of all.

“You gotta give them some credit,” Chauncey Billups said after the 98-82 blowout – the second straight year the Pistons have been eliminated in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. “It wasn’t us just losing. They won.”

On a night in which NBA slickness was thrown into a time warp by malfunctioning equipment – and a PA announcer had to yell “five seconds” in place of a broken shot clock – the Pistons tried. They threw all the muscle they could into this game. But if Antonio McDyess went up strong for an offensive rebound, he missed the follow-up. If Billups saved a ball out of bounds, Tayshaun Prince missed the extra attempt.

The Pistons were outrebounded, 53-33. They shot 36% for the night. Their jumpers lipped in and out. And, finally, so did their chances.

Cleveland goes to the NBA Finals for the first time. The Pistons are now 0-for-3 in their effort to continue a championship tradition. They can explain this series any way they want. Nothing changes this fact: They were beaten four straight times by a team they felt was inferior.

‘Bron Voyage.

‘Sheed’s last stand?

“We ain’t perfect. We can lose, too,” Prince, dejected, said in the locker room.

That much is now obvious. The game was barroom tough at the start. Fouls were hard. There were more jump balls than you see in a week. The Pistons players stood anxiously for much of the game, drawing abuse from the fans behind them. Chris Webber shoved Anderson Varejao and got called for a technical. Scowls were part of the Pistons’ uniform.

Then the scoreboard, shot clock and horn went out, and players sat for 21 minutes while officials made like Keystone Cops. Finally, both teams came back on the floor as if entering a time warp. And for the next two quarters, this was some ugly basketball. Clanking misses. Drops. Turnovers. For a good stretch, fans didn’t know the score.

But they knew the score.

You could see it coming when every Cleveland player had a shot before LeBron James did.

You could see it coming when LeBron didn’t make a shot the entire first quarter – and the Cavs still led by six!

You could see it coming when Nazr Mohammed, cobwebs and all, was put into the game and promptly fouled Gibson on a three-point shot.

You could see it coming when McDyess got his third foul less than halfway through the second quarter.

You could see it coming when the Pistons missed 16 of 22 shots in the third quarter.

You could see it coming when the Cavaliers opened a small lead in the fourth, then Gibson hit another and another until it was hopeless.

And you could see it going when Wallace opened his mouth and put his foot – and any chance the Pistons might have had at Game 7 – squarely inside it. He was thrown out of the game with his team trailing, 81-69. Because of his previous laundry list of technicals, even if this series had gone to Monday night, Wallace would have been watching in street clothes.

For a guy who is supposed to be the ultimate teammate, I don’t quite see how he’s helping. And in the litany of questions that now faces Pistons management, this may be the biggest one:

Hasn’t Rasheed’s act worn thin?

Where was the bench?

Yes, there were signs all along the way that the Pistons might not survive this round. Cleveland’s first two defeats were close, and LeBron’s decisions had something to do with them. Billups, who makes this team go, never got untracked. Webber seemed to age by the minute (you hold your breath when he touches the ball). Prince couldn’t score. The bench, with the exception of McDyess – and one night by Jason Maxiell – was truly useless.

And while experience was supposed to be a factor, as the series went on, it seemed like the only experience that mattered was that which you learned through these games. The Cavs grew more and more confident. The Pistons shriveled. They hadn’t lost four games in a row all year; yet they did it in the playoffs to the same team.

“They took advantage of their opportunities,” Prince said. “They had an unsung hero step up, and their leader led them.”

Here’s how I knew Detroit was done. When I read Billups’ quote Friday: “The way that we played in a few of these games we should have been beat by 17, 18, 19. But they haven’t been able to pull away on us. … We’re right there.”

Huh? When you’re defending how close you kept a defeat, you are no longer a championship team.

Championship teams only concern themselves with winning.

And this one hasn’t won in 10 days, four games, a million questions about “what’s gone wrong.”

These are a few things the Pistons could not do in this series:

They could not win a game in Cleveland.

They could not make adjustments.

They could not stop the best young player in basketball.

They could not get their star players untracked for an entire game.

That’s enough.

Something’s gotta change.

A summer of decisions

Either Flip Saunders or the players. Somebody is going to go. Joe Dumars is rightfully proud of the team he has assembled, and he has bucked the NBA trend of “superstar first,” but results are results, and Dumars isn’t in this to keep watching the Finals on TV. He is smart enough to see that Chicago will be an even tougher team next season and LeBron is only getting stronger, meaning the East will be a bear to win – let alone an NBA title. Dumars can’t return with this group intact, only one year older, and expect better results. Who in the Pistons’ starting five is going to improve the way LeBron or Luol Deng is going to improve next year?

Either these Pistons, as a unit, can no longer deliver the big victories, or Saunders was simply ineffective in making adjustments and rallying their talent. Either way, standing pat is not an option. Remember, hunger was what got the Pistons their one championship this era: the hunger of players discarded from other teams, the hunger of a coach (Larry Brown) who’d never won the big crown.

Hunger roared the Pistons past a supposedly unbeatable team – the star-studded L.A. Lakers – in just five games in the 2004 Finals.

But since that championship year, hunger has been replaced by hubris, an attitude that nobody beats the Pistons, they just, on occasion, beat themselves. Instead of surprising teams, they get surprised. They struggle where they shouldn’t. And near the end of the rainbow, they fall off.

Honestly, since the Lakers went down, can you remember any series – beyond the perfunctory first rounds – that wasn’t a struggle for these Pistons? They let weaker teams get off the mat. They give back most early advantages they have. Doing things the hard way became their mantra.

Perhaps it’s time to lose that.

Doing things the hard way is only fun if you win.

For now, all the fun is in Cleveland. King James is truly a transcendent player, but you have to credit the Cleveland defense as well. LeBron wasn’t guarding Billups or Webber or Wallace. It is terribly hard to beat a playoff team four games in a row. The Cavs did that to the Pistons, who had the best record in the East this year – and once more, the city of Detroit is hammered by the lesson that the regular season means nothing.

History will show the Pistons couldn’t close games when they had leads. Couldn’t score but one basket in an entire overtime period at home. Couldn’t stop one man when everyone knew that man was going to take the shot.

History will show that this was the series in which the next biggest superstar went from potential to potent. King James is here to stay, but he won’t stay here. He’ll get better and better, and that’s the worst news of all for Detroit.

“Can you see if this Pistons team, as it’s configured, coming back next year and beating this Cleveland team?” Billups was asked.

“Yeah, I can,” he said.

I can’t.

At one point Saturday night, with all the technical snafus, the scoreboard flashed back to 0-0. If only life worked that way, the Pistons might have a chance.

‘Bron Voyage.

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). www.freep.com/mitch.

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