MITCH ALBOM All night long they had been trying to snare the only thing that mattered, a lead. They never had it. At one point, it was as far off as a ship on the horizon. Slowly, they swam in, clipping away, a point here, a basket there, until finally, finally, in the fourth quarter, they reached sea level. A tie at 54 points. A tie at 57. A tie at 59. A Chauncey Billups three-pointer. A Ben Wallace turnaround. A Tayshaun Prince block. Whatever was in the arsenal, it was coming out now. Richard Hamilton took a forearm to the face, hit the deck, got up and made two free throws. Rasheed Wallace saw a missed shot, flew in and slammed it down, falling on his butt.

And at last, when the sweetest sound in their world was heard — a winning buzzer — this wrestling match was finally over, and all the misses, clanks and air balls were behind them, and they looked up and saw the blessed digits on the scoreboard. They leapt.

And confetti fell.

It fell on the players, it fell on the fans, it fell on all those familiar old faces — Vinnie Johnson, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, even Chuck Daly — in the building for just this occasion.

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends — it just takes a hiatus for 14 years. June basketball — championship basketball — is here once more, honking the horn like an old high school buddy in his familiar sports car, top down, music blaring, harking back to days when we all had more hair and more energy, and this same blue-collar franchise did battle with the mambo kings of glitz, the L.A. Lakers.

Rev up the engines.

Bad is back.

On an ugly night of basketball, when they survived a first half suitable for framing — if your frame is a garbage can — the Pistons finally managed to knock out the No. 1 seed in the East, (Indiana), their former coach (Rick Carlisle), an aging superstar (Reggie Miller), a budding superstar (Jermaine O’Neal) and the defensive player of the year (Ron Artest). And when it ended, the Pistons wiped their jaws then licked their chops.

They weren’t finished. They wanted more. They wanted the West.

“This was crazy, man,” Hamilton said when this was finally over and he had scored a game-high 21 points and survived a blow to the face from Artest that left him woozy. “This whole series was an all-out war. But going to the NBA Finals, where I come from, that’s everything, man.”

Here’s news for you, Rip. It means a lot around here, too.

Remember the last “first time” the Pistons made the championship round? Much is the same. They will go to Los Angeles. They will take on the Lakers. They will play the high-profile, movie-star basketball team and they will bring as weapons their Midwest muscle, sticky defense, and a collective mind-set that says, “You think we’re gonna be easy, think again.”

Bad is back.

The dramatic conclusion

“This game felt like it took forever,” guard Lindsey Hunter said. “It was bang, knockdown, ugghh.”

Well put. What was that final score? 69-65?

I don’t want to say that it was bad, but the rim was often the best player out there.

But the question on nights like these is always readiness. Who is ready to seize the moment and who is ready to go home? For much of Game 6 Tuesday night at the Palace, both teams played like the latter. The Pistons missed 26 of their first 31 shots. They clanked from the inside more times than a piggy bank penny. Jump shots weren’t falling. Lay-ups weren’t falling. Passes were stolen. All hands were on deck. And all hands were cold.

Had the Pacers been a better team — or even a more experienced one — they would have exploited this and had a 25-point lead by halftime. Instead, Indiana went on long droughts of its own. The Pacers hit just one basket in the first nine minutes of the second quarter. And the distance between the teams for much of that arid section remained nine points, hardly insurmountable.

You had the feeling, watching that first half, that wherever the Lakers were, they immediately canceled practice.

But in the second half, the game tightened. And even though the Pistons didn’t reach 50 points until 10 minutes were left in this contest, Indiana was within arm’s reach the whole time. A Billups three-pointer tied the game at 54, and from that point, it was a drag-down, knock-over, parched-throat crawl to the finish.

OK. So it wasn’t art. People said that about Andy Warhol, and he sold a lot of paintings.

Bad is back.

Their time to shine

This was a huge moment for these diehard players, for defensive aces like Ben Wallace, for overlooked guards like Hamilton and Billups, for Rasheed Wallace, whom some out west had labeled a poison.

It was a huge moment for Larry Brown, hired one year ago today. Some questioned whether it was a smart move — for the Pistons or for him. He proved them wrong by defeating not only the Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals and the Pacers in the finals but the ghost of Carlisle. Now he goes back to the NBA Finals to try again for the only thing that has eluded him in his Hall of Fame basketball career.

And it was a huge moment for Dumars, the president of basketball operations who methodically put this team together. The last time the Pistons played for an NBA championship, in 1990, Dumars was wearing a uniform. When Game 6 was over Tuesday night, he looked like he had sweated through two shirts.

“This feels more gratifying than getting here as a player,” he said. “As a player, it’s always, ‘Are you taped right? Is your uniform right?’ It’s always about you. In this position, you have to think about the whole team.”

Bad is back.

How did the Pistons get here? Defense. Rip Hamilton. Rasheed. More defense. They did it by holding Artest to abysmal shooting all series and by holding O’Neal to mortal status. They did it by adjusting to Carlisle’s adjustments (Austin Croshere in the starting lineup, Artest playing tight on Hamilton), they did by blocking one out of every eight Indiana shots.

By mostly they did it with a focus that narrowed when the winning was at hand. They may still make mistakes, these Pistons, but they do learn from them. Having dropped Game 4 in Detroit last weekend, they took stock and shook away any cobwebs of complacency. A first half like Tuesday’s might have sunk another team. Heck, a first half like that, some teams wouldn’t bother coming out for the third quarter. But they hung in, and when Ben Wallace dunked the final two points and the place came unglued, it was over. They were there.

“Last year, we didn’t know what it took to get over the hump,” Hamilton said earlier in the day, as if predicting this turnout. “We just knew how to show up and play in the playoffs, but not what it took to be a champion. We learned from watching New Jersey play, and now we’re a lot more prepared for it.”

The NBA Finals. The new Beast of the East.

Bad is back.

Back to Tinseltown

And now the Lakers. The gold standard of the league. On the one hand, if you want to win a crown, what could be better than taking it off the Lion King’s head? Nobody has beaten the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers in a championship round, and to do so would do more than make history, it would rewrite it.

That’s the good news.

And the bad.

This is one tough team, the Lakers, not in any one game, but over a long series. They are deep, talented, big and experienced. Phil Jackson, their coach, has never lost one of these finals — not with L.A., not with Chicago. Karl Malone and Gary Payton waited all year, bemoaning their relatively meager paychecks, just for this moment. The Pistons will have their hands full with Shaquille O’Neal (maybe Rasheed in front, Ben in back?) and Kobe Bryant (maybe Tayshaun to start, Rip to back up?), and the bright lights and big noise of the Staples Center will be intimidating for first-timers, as the Pistons almost all are, don’t kid yourself.

Oh, and by the way. If the Pistons give the Lakers a first two quarters like they gave Indiana Tuesday night, they might as well shower at halftime.

But the first key to winning a fight is to be willing to fight. And that much, the Pistons have shown in buckets. They showed it in Game 5 against Milwaukee, they showed it in Game 6 against New Jersey, they showed it over the weekend in Indianapolis, and finally, they showed it big time Tuesday night in the Palace, never more than when Hamilton got up from the Artest blow and hit two free throws for the thing they wanted most: the lead.

“I’m happy I got hit,” Hamilton said. “Getting hit helps you focus on winning.”

Bad is back. Strap yourselves in. Hockeytown may be Hooptown before this one’s over.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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