CHICAGO FIRE

It was like watching a small rag fire, hoping it would burn out, and next thing you know, the whole neighborhood was aflame. The Chicago Bulls won the tip, hit the first shot, and we could have stopped there. The rest was a clinic. Here was the lesson:

This is the NBA. You can’t come out and expect a crown to be put on your head. The Pistons made shots Tuesday night, but not as many as Chicago. They moved the ball, but not as well as Chicago. They were hungry, but not as hungry as Chicago. They were done with Chicago, but Chicago wasn’t done with them.

It is hubris to think you can simply put a team where you want it, and the Pistons – and plenty of us in the media – seemed to act as if showing up Tuesday was the only requirement for victory. Well, the Bulls showed up, too. They came into the Palace with nothing to lose, believing they hadn’t played their best game yet – or anything close to it. One of these nights they were going to shoot the lights out – if they just got enough nights to pick from.

The Pistons gave them an extra night by not putting them away in Chicago on Sunday. You never, ever let a team get off the mat. Not in this league.

The Bulls, resurrected, flat-out embarrassed Detroit in its home gym. They could have pulled the Pistons’ pants down and not hurt their pride as much. They shot the lights out, then they shot the sockets and the wiring and the fuse box, too. After three quarters, they were still shooting close to 70%.

“It’s tough to shoot 70% in gym with no one guarding you, let alone in a pressure situation,” said a glum Flip Saunders after the 108-92 defeat in Game 5.

And the pressure has shifted to the Pistons. Chicago has now won as many road games in this series as Detroit has. Ben Gordon (28 points) has awakened from his slumber. Kirk Hinrich has ceased to be intimidated. Tyrus Thomas is aging a year every night. And the Pistons have been exposed as a team that drops like a failed tech stock when Chauncey Billups is on the bench.

Before this second-round series began, everyone expected a tough, hard affair, and no one would have been surprised at a 3-2 Pistons lead. But when it comes after a 3-0 Pistons lead, it’s not surprise, it’s something else.

Concern.

Fantasy vs. Reality

“Just because you step on the floor, other teams aren’t going to roll over,” Saunders said. “I think mentally, we were into the game. … But it’s tough when you’re always playing catch-up.”

Playing catch up – again, the third straight game Detroit has been way down – was not what we had in mind when the evening began. It began with visions of a celebration: The Pistons win, they end the series, they move to the conference finals, first team into this year’s NBA Final Four.

But that was fantasy.

This was reality: Tayshaun Prince, trapped in a Chicago defensive sandwich, having to call time. Chris Webber driving the basket and being stripped by Ben Wallace. Rip Hamilton getting stuffed in the lane. Antonio McDyess throwing an errant pass for Rasheed Wallace. Billups, sitting down with his fourth foul, the Pistons chances sitting down with him.

This was reality: The Bulls stampeding with offense, shooting like some can’t-miss joystick button in a video game, Gordon launching from everywhere, hitting five of six three-pointers, barely moving the net as the ball swished through. Hinrich becoming the pest that he is, scoring, dishing, drawing fouls. Luol Deng rising as if launched by pogo stick, tossing off-balance shots through the cylinder. Thomas hitting his first five shots, threatening to rip the rim off on several of them.

Seventy-eight percent? Did the Bulls really shoot 78% in the first quarter? Seventy-two percent? Did they really shoot 72% for the first half?

Did they really do that? Did they really blow the Pistons away?

They did. And, as to paraphrase a Monkees song, it’s a little bit them, it’s a little bit us.

“Is it fair to say you guys let up after a 3-0 lead?” someone asked Billups at the postgame news conference.

“Looking at the last two games, it’s fair to say that,” he admitted. “I can’t say we did that intentionally, but it’s human nature, when you get that kind of a lead and that kind of a cushion. … Our team is the kind of team, as you know, that is not that good with cushions. …

“Hopefully, they don’t shoot that good again.”

Several history lessons

Hopefully. But now the series goes to six games, at least. And even when the Pistons win – and they will win, I refuse to change my prediction on that – they will be that much more fatigued, have that much less rest time, and be that much more exposed to potential injury.

We can only hope that, along with all that negative, they will have relearned a lesson they swore they had learned last year versus Cleveland.

Everybody is good in the playoffs. Everybody has pride. And when you mix those ingredients with some undeserved sense of entitlement, you can lose any night, in any building.

“Do you think the Pistons are starting to worry?” someone asked Ben Wallace in the locker room.

“I know those guys, I’ve been to war with those guys,” he said, “and starting to worry is the last thing you expect from them.”

Maybe expectations should change. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 NBA deficit. The Pistons know it. And they better forget it. They’ve already twice been on the wrong side of the scoreboard. They don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.

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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