DENGED UP PISTONS BLOW CHANCE TO SWEEP ASIDE BULLS

CHICAGO – Ben Wallace stood at the loneliest place in his world, the free-throw line. He dribbled. He shot. Swish. He dribbled. He shot. Swish again. The place exploded. Ben nodded. The fans had their cheer. The Bulls had their win, 102-87.

And the Pistons had another game to play.

They are on borrowed time now, these Pistons; they are borrowing it from themselves. Every quarter they extend this series is a quarter they should be saving for the next one. Every minute they play these Bulls is a minute they should be resting up for someone else.

Let’s be blunt. This series should have ended Sunday in a tepid United Center that was almost half-empty at tip-off. There was as much enthusiasm for this game as a teenager has for raking leaves. Tickets were being dumped. The pumped-up volume during introductions was as forced as a carnival barker yelling to see the fat lady. What do you expect when the home team has been whacked in the first three games, shooting poorly, looking lost?

So once the early adrenaline wore off for the Bulls – midway through the second quarter – the Pistons took a lead, the Bulls slumped, and the game hung red and ripe from the vine, plum for the picking.

But the Pistons left it there. Then they gave it back. They gave it back with loose passes, weak rebounding, foul trouble, average defense, bad shot selection, several missing-in-action players, and a light-on-the-gas-pedal effort that is uncharacteristic of how they’ve played all postseason.

“This is the first time in these playoffs that we’ve let our guard down, at least for that long a stretch,” Chauncey Billups said after the Pistons’ first loss of the postseason. “The positive thing is that when we started to play, we did what we do.”

The negative thing is, they didn’t do it until the fourth quarter.

‘We took this game for granted’

“I don’t care who it is,” Wallace said from the Chicago side. “We are better than being swept in four games.”

Maybe. But the Bulls looked ready in the second quarter. The Pistons came back from eight points down and eventually took a three-point lead with 4:00 left in the half.

The place was dead. Fans checked their watches. This was the moment to bring the blade down.

Instead, on a single possession, the Bulls missed four shots but got four offensive rebounds and finally saw their 20-year-old rookie, Tyrus Thomas, dunk the ball.

And the patient coughed back to life.

The Bulls regained the lead and kept piling on points, banging the boards. By the time the Pistons’ caffeine kicked in, they were trying to erase a 21-point fourth quarter deficit.

Even Evel Knievel couldn’t make that leap.

Here’s a set of numbers: 51-33. That’s the rebounding margin in favor of the Bulls.

Here’s another: 6-for-25. That’s the Pistons three-point completions.

Here’s another: 0-0-0. That’s Chris Webber’s baskets, free throws and points in 17 ineffective minutes.

Here’s one more: 6-6-6. That’s the fouls on Billups, Rip Hamilton and Antonio McDyess.

Hey, I know the Pistons are good. But at some point you have to have players on the floor.

“Tonight we took this game for granted,” McDyess said. “…We should have jumped on them early because we had a great chance to close them out and didn’t.”

By the way, of those 25 three-point attempts, 12 were taken by Rasheed Wallace, who also had four turnovers, four fouls and a technical, and grabbed 10 fewer rebounds than his former teammate, Ben.

In the locker room afterward, Rasheed kept coming back to an iPod speaker and blasting the volume, making it impossible to hear or talk. When a staff member turned it down, he re-appeared and turned it up again, picking songs that suited him. If he’d shown that much attention to detail on the court, the Pistons might be sleeping in this morning.

Giving up a chance to rest

But OK. You can’t be very angry at a team that won seven straight before this. You knew Detroit was going to lose a game in this postseason. It just shouldn’t have been this game.

There are few situations that set up better than a team trailing 3-0 in a playoff series and looking at a road trip to extend the inevitable. Usually what happens is the trailing team begins with a lot of energy, acts determined to stave off execution, and then, like a lobster in boiling water, slowly oozes its life away and surrenders.

The Bulls had a white flag. But the Pistons had one, too.

“I’m disappointed in the loss, I’m disappointed that we got beat, and I’m disappointed that we played at times out of character,” coach Flip Saunders said. “…When we take 25 threes it shows that we settled too much and tried to take the easy way…We didn’t get into the grind it out game.”

They may have to on Tuesday. Yes, I know, we’re all counting on a victory, and it’s likely to happen, because these Bulls are too young to beat this much experience. But remember, coach Scott Skiles’ crew has nothing to lose now. The embarrassment of a sweep is gone. The invincibility of the opponent is gone. And they have to go back to Chicago anyhow – so they might as well do it with a victory.

Every game against the Bulls is now a game the Pistons didn’t need to play. Every minute is a minute extended. Every muscle strain or injury is one that didn’t have to happen.

No one expected perfection. Everyone expects a Game 5 win. But where there’s life there’s hope and where there’s hope, there’s freaky potential, like Ben Wallace hitting two free throws in the fourth quarter to seal a win.

Said Saunders: “It’s a series now.”

It shouldn’t be.

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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