DOWN, NOT OUT

All right, Rasheed. You want to make up for it? Have a monster game tonight. Have a game where you not only start strong, you finish strong, too. Have a game where you don’t float in and out like a ghost going from room to room looking for someone to scare. Because the Pistons need you to be scary tonight. And, quite frankly, you owe them one.

You owe them for a momentary lapse in basketball common sense Sunday night that may have turned this series irrevocably in San Antonio’s favor. Not lost the series. No one player loses a series. But turned? You bet. The moment you neglected to cover Robert Horry from the three-point line in the closing seconds of overtime, the moment you abandoned him to double-team Manu Ginobili – who was no more a threat to win the game in that moment than I was – the moment you left the only Spur who seemed to want the ball wide open for his favorite shot at his favorite time, you shifted the cosmic balance. The Spurs went from down a basket to up a point. They went from down a game to up a game. They went from depressed to absolutely delirious.

You turned that moment, Rasheed. And deep down, you know it.

What are you going to do about it?

Oh, sure, I know the “code.” The code says you don’t call out a player for a mistake. But that’s your code, the code the team follows, not fans, not analysts and obviously not media types. Maybe you didn’t catch the ABC-TV broadcast of Game 5. Not only was Hubie Brown critical of your terrible decision on the air, but in the commercial break, he yelled like a high school coach berating a kid who won’t listen. “You NEVER leave that guy open,” he said.

I hate to say it, but you don’t need to be a paid analyst to figure that out.

What you did was Chris Webber’s calling time out in 1993 (something you, incredibly, also tried Sunday night, and luckily got away with). What you did was Isiah Thomas’ making the half-hearted pass that Larry Bird stole in 1987. It was falling asleep at the wheel. It was daydreaming during surgery. You simply don’t do what you did, not at that moment, not with that much on the line. You handed a huge club to the opposing team, then let them use it to whack you in the stomach.

So OK. What are you going to do about it?

Brown takes the bullet

You owe the guys one, Rasheed, because they are covering for you. They are not pointing fingers. Your teammates just say win as a team, lose as a team. Your coach, Larry Brown, pretzel-twisted his words so desperately to protect you, he should have been dipped in butter and covered in salt.

“It was just a guy trying to make the right play,” Brown said Monday to a phalanx of cameras and microphones in Auburn Hills.

Wait, how can that be the right play, he was asked, when Rasheed left the in-bounds passer open (which they teach you not to do), left open the deadliest outside shooter on the team (which they teach you not to do), and left open the only shot that could beat you rather than tie you (which they teach you not to do)?

“Maybe we didn’t say it enough,” Brown said. “And that’s coaching. … When you leave that huddle you can say things 25 times. You might have to say it 26 times.”

But clearly when you broke the huddle you said someone has to guard Horry?

“Well, Horry still had to make the shot … “

Did you say anything to Rasheed?

“I never talk about individuals. We lost as a team.”

You see that, Rasheed? That man is in a knot. That man is going a yoga mile for your protection. This is what people do for you, Rasheed. At least here in Detroit. When you are rude, people say you are “different.” When you are nasty, people say you’re “a great teammate.” When you disappear from a game, people say, “Yeah, but he has some great games, too.” It is a pattern in Motown, people rushing to save you from yourself – even when you don’t bother.

If you wonder why people do that here, it’s simple. Since you arrived, the Pistons have played better. You came, they won a championship. Much of it can be traced to your talent and your attitude. And when winning is traced to you, nothing else sticks.

But be careful. Because if the Pistons lose this series – and they trail, three games to two – defeat will be mapped back to you as well, as surely as man’s family tree is mapped back to Adam. And when you are seen as the reason a team lost – instead of the reason a team won – there won’t be so many people justifying your behavior or your moods.

“You can’t go back and say shoulda, coulda, woulda,” you told a Free Press reporter after Game 5.

Maybe you can’t. But everyone else can.

And will.

Duncan can be beaten

You have a chance to do something about all this, Rasheed. You are an exceptional talent. Tim Duncan cannot guard you when you want to get your shot. You begin many of these playoff games by taking him low and beating him high. That doesn’t have to stop. You can try an entire game where you work that hard.

You also can stop waiting until shots “come to you,” as is your preference. When your teammates need you to make things happen, that’s not good enough. Conversely, when the team needs you to work hard inside or draw a foul on a defender, shooting a lazy jumper isn’t the answer, either. You didn’t have a single free-throw attempt Sunday night. That’s not aggressive enough.

Your defensive skills, when you turn them on, are unparalleled by any other big man in the league. Can you make them go from the opening tip to the 48th minute? Can you not forget to pick someone up, can you always be where you’re supposed to be? For one perfect night? One perfect game?

Can you do that? Because the Pistons need it tonight in Game 6 or they – and you – are no longer NBA champions. That garish belt you carry around will be nothing but silly. And you’ll have a very long summer to think about running over to cover an already covered Ginobili.

The task at hand is improbable, but not impossible. The Pistons can win both these games in San Antonio and cement a legend as the toughest-minded team ever to win back-to-back titles. But it will take something special and someone special. You are the only player in these NBA Finals, Rasheed, who, during introductions at the Palace, turned to the crowd and pounded his own chest, as if to say “me, me, me.”

You want it, you got it. You. You. You. All night long. Make it a monster night. A great night. Make it a night fans won’t forget.

And maybe they’ll forget the other one.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

(SIDEBAR) BAD? YES! IMPOSSIBLE? NO WAY!

The Pistons trail, 3-2, to the Spurs. But they’ve rallied before – on the road.

They did it against the Nets: Remember that triple-overtime loss in Game 5 last season? That put the Pistons down, 3-2, to New Jersey. “Our work isn’t done,” Ben Wallace warned. He was right. Detroit won Game 6 at New Jersey and Game 7 at the Palace.

They did it against the Pacers: Down, 2-1, last month, Lindsey Hunter said: “I’m sure there are probably a lot of people who are writing us off right now.” Rasheed Wallace wasn’t one of them. He said a Game 4 victory was GuaranSheed, and it was. Detroit won at Indiana.

They did it against the Heat: Down, 3-2, the Pistons beat the Heat and the odds, winning Game 6 at the Palace and Game 7 at Miami. “They don’t know that’s what we do!” Rip Hamilton sang afterward. “They don’t know that’s what we do!” But can they do it once again?

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