FOR PRINCE, WADE HARDER THAN KOBE

MIAMI — Tayshaun Prince was mopping his face with a small hand towel. He patted his forehead. He wiped around his nose. He looked like a skinny man with a cold, or at least one who couldn’t stop sweating. This was in the emptying hallways of American Airlines Arena, a full hour after Game 2 had ended Wednesday night, but Prince still seemed to be wafting in the steam of his opponent, Dwyane Wade.

Can you blame him? Wade had been a one-man sauna. The streaking Miami guard had flamed on for 40 points and had single-handedly turned the series into a series again. Wade is Prince’s defensive responsibility.

Thanks a lot.

“Do you feel it’s like last year’s Finals, after Game 2, with everyone talking about Kobe Bryant and you being the guy who’s supposed to stop him?” I asked Prince.

“Well, obviously, what I did last year in the Finals, they expect the same in this series,” he said. “And obviously this could be a tougher situation for me because Wade is a lot faster. …”

How about that? In one year, Bryant, whom experts considered the best non-big man in the league, had been surpassed by a guy three inches smaller and several years younger.

And Prince, who is hailed as “long” by every admiring analyst in the business, is supposed to guard him — again.

You can take your polls about who’s the most important player on the Pistons, and this newspaper did, and it came back choosing the most photographed player, Ben Wallace. But photographs don’t create points or stop points, and it’s pretty clear that Prince, in this series, must be the gas that fuels the Detroit fire and the foam that puts Miami’s out.

That means some long nights for the longest player out there.

Wade owns edge in speed

To understand what Prince faces with Wade, consider the plight of a matador. He stands alone in front of the bull, only a cape between him and a goring. The bull charges. The matador gauges his speed, his hooves and, at the last instant, slides away from danger and lets the bull go past him.

Now take that job, and subtract the option of moving out of the way. Imagine if the matador had to stay in front of the beast the entire time. Oh, and instead of all that open ground, the bull had teammates who were standing behind the matador, where he couldn’t see them, and — oomph! — suddenly the matador was backed into one and — oomph! — then he was backed into another and still he had to keep the bull in front of him, waving his arms, trying to distract him.

“Those pick-and-rolls are hard with their big guys,” Prince said. “And it’s obviously tough when you got a guy who’s a lot faster than you.”

“Is Wade a lot faster than you?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Prince admitted.

Especially when he makes those little circles with the ball, coming off screens and — oomph! — there are those other bulls again, making life — oomph! — difficult for Prince. He must pick a poison. Play tight and risk the little man going around him, or play loose and give the guy enough room to dart around a teammate, like a kid ducking through laundry on a clothesline.

Nice job options, huh?

Still, he does it better than anyone else. No surprise that on Wednesday night, when Prince sat out the entire second quarter with two fouls, the Heat surged to its biggest lead. Wade, with Prince looking on, made a finger roll, sank free throws, grabbed rebounds and helped direct the flow that put Miami up by 14.

“How tough was that, to sit and watch?” I asked.

“I’m not a coach, I don’t make the decision,” Prince said. “As a player, you want to be in no matter what … but we still had our opportunities at the end.”

So did Wade. He made his.

Pistons need Prince’s scoring

Still, do not underestimate the kid from California. Despite his thin voice, his thin frame and his thin conversation, Prince is thick with moxie and an understanding of the game. He rarely takes a dumb shot. He rarely makes an ill-advised drive. He is capable, at any moment, of stretching that enormous wingspan into a snapshot play, a flying block, an alley-oop jam, or one of those feathery floats through the lane, where he directs the ball down the hoop as if dropping a balloon down a cannon.

He also has an acute timing for the three-point basket, delivering when most needed, swishing the net with his clean deposits. Prince scored 17 points Wednesday, second highest on the team, and he led the Pistons in treys, despite sitting an entire quarter. With Richard Hamilton clearly not himself (a calf injury is altering his balance), Prince’s scoring is much more crucial. Ben Wallace might be brilliant on defense, but he’ll give you nights like Wednesday, when he badly missed all but two of his 10 shots. Prince does that, Detroit might not break 70.

Still, it’s not just how he goes but how he stops that matters, and no doubt Prince is revisiting all those Dwyane Wade encounters, including the most ironic one, in the fourth quarter of Game 2, when Wade drew an offensive foul on Prince, killing the Pistons’ chance to build on a one-point lead.

“It was his night,” Prince said. He mopped his brow again. But don’t be misled. That was sweat, not tears, and by now that towel has been washed, dried and put on a shelf. Prince won their first encounter, Wade the second. They likely will have at least four more. I wouldn’t bet against the long versus the short of it.

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

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