DUMARS CAN TELL PISTONS HOW AWFUL A LOSS WOULD FEEL

Joe Dumars remembers the feeling. It was May of 1991, the morning after Michael Jordan and the Bulls had swept through the Pistons’ kingdom and knocked the crown off their heads. Dumars woke up in his own bed, same as usual, but his world was newly empty, as if all the furniture had been removed, as if his family had run away and left no note.

“It’s like you’re in mourning,” he says now. “You take so much pride in walking around and saying you’re a champion. And then, one day, it’s taken away and you say, ‘Somebody else is gonna wear that title now.’

“I remember sitting on the deck in my backyard thinking, ‘Oh, man. It’s gone.’ It’s a complete loss. Just a gut-wrenching feeling in the pit of your stomach.”

Current Pistons, take heed. You have felt many emotions in the last year – from exhaustion to exultation. Emptiness, the kind Dumars is referring to, would be something new.

And it would not be fun.

Which brings us to tonight’s Game 6 in the Eastern Conference finals. A true “win or go home” night for Detroit. Dumars says he “feels good” about how the team he put together will respond, but he still knows a heartache that these players haven’t learned. He knows when a title leaves, it’s an ex-wife waving your divorce papers. You get no friendly squeezes for “old times’ sake.” In some cases, it never wants to see you again. Dumars never got another ring after 1990, no matter how often he thought he would.

So when Rasheed Wallace held his championship belt Thursday night in Miami while complaining about the referees, it was symbolic. He was gripping what he did not want to surrender, even as he admitted it could be taken away.

“Oh, we’re gonna win Game 6,” he predicted. “They want there to be a Game 7. … If y’all can’t see that, then y’all crazy.”

Well, hear this from the nuthouse. In tonight’s game at the Palace, what the refs want and what the league wants is far less important than what the Miami Heat wants.

Which is less important than what the Pistons want.

Which is less important than how badly they want it.

A test of character

Never mind whether Dwyane Wade is playing or not. Never mind whether Shaquille O’Neal is 90%, 80% or 61.8%. The home team is the story tonight, and the home team may not like this, but it needs to be said:

The Pistons are not playing hungry. They are not playing desperate. This was never a group that relied on superstar dominance or unmatchable matchups en route to last season’s NBA title. It won with heart. It won with stifling energy. And that energy was always demonstrated on defense.

Precisely where it has been most absent.

From the 30 points surrendered in the fourth quarters of Games 2 and 3, to the loose rebounds, open jumpers and drives to the hoop by Miami’s supporting cast in Game 5, the intensity hasn’t been there. The glue is drying up and cracking. Wallace can complain about foul calls from now until Halloween, but his defense wasn’t anything to write home about between whistles. And Chauncey Billups can show his pride and leadership, but Damon Jones still sank jumpers over him in Game 5. And Ben Wallace is justifiably proud and intense, but Shaq still got most of the shots he wanted Thursday – with Big Ben on top of him.

“Miami is a good team, man,” Billups admitted after the 88-76 loss. “This is the best team that we’ve played in a series. … It’s a heavyweight bout, and it’s coming down to the later rounds.

“The guys who aren’t supposed to be deciding games – their role players – they decided the game. They came and they played good. …

“But I say it time and time again: It’s what we do. It’s how we play. If we do what we need to do … I don’t think anybody can beat us. If we don’t, that team is good enough to beat us.

“And that’s been shown.”

Yes, it has. Three times.

Will tonight be four?

A blueprint for victory

That depends on several factors. It depends on Rasheed Wallace’s showing up in mind and body, being involved down low as well as out high. It depends on the accuracy of Rip Hamilton, whose engine the Pistons can least afford to let stall. It depends on Billups’ directing the game and making it a big one. It depends on Ben Wal-lace’s returning to his dominance on the glass while taking meaningful chunks out of the tree named Shaq. And it depends on Tayshaun Prince’s taking advantage of height mismatches on both ends of the court.

More than anything, it depends on attitude. The Heat enters the Palace like a kid entering a bakery on Saturday morning, enticed by the smell of something special. The Pistons must be salivating, too – not harboring doubts about the dark clouds above them.

“We can’t think about two games,” Billups said. “Just one game. Saturday night. Eight o’clock. Nothing else. We take care of business, we can talk after that game. We don’t, then we’ll talk about something else.”

“What will we talk about then?” he was asked.

“What happened,” Billups said.

It could be a depressing conversation.

So here we are. The crossroads of this young championship franchise. It is true, the Heat has looked more like last year’s Pistons than this year’s Pistons do, but there is one big difference coming into tonight. You cannot mourn what you never had. The Heat has nothing on the line. Miami already has exceeded its recent history and its expectations.

The Pistons, on the other hand, face a miserable fate should they go down tonight or in Game 7 Monday at Miami. They will wake up the next day with an emptiness none of them has known, the one that still gives Dumars shivers.

“I never won a championship again,” says Dumars, now the Pistons’ president of basketball operations. “That’s the thing you try to impress upon these guys. I tell them, ‘This is not a given. I promise you there was a time I couldn’t even imagine not being a champion. Then, as the years go on and you’re not winning it, you say, “Goodness, those were great times we had. Did we do everything to keep them going?” Don’t blow this away, guys. This is a precious time in your life right now. Don’t blow it away.’ “

What more need be said? It’s on the players now. On their hunger, their desire, their pride and their skill.

Ben Wallace, Thursday night, looked into a sea of media faces and declared these words:

“Series ain’t over.”

But the fact that it could be must inspire every move the Pistons make.

Or it will be.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. He will sign copies of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” on June 12 – 12:30 p.m. at Borders in Southland Mall in Taylor – and on June 18 – 11:30 a.m. at Borders in Birmingham, 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Northville and 4:30 p.m. at Borders Express at Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills.

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