GOING . . . GONESAD FACES, SAD ENDING FOR PISTONS

ATLANTA — The faces told it all. Grant Hill looking down into his chest and sighing. Bison Dele scowling as he walked off with his sixth foul. Joe Dumars, biting his lip as the enemy crowd rose to salute him, and the opposing players came over one by one to hug him and say good-bye.

“THE KNICKS ARE NEXT . . .” screamed the announcer.

But not for the Pistons. It wasn’t that they stopped trying, and it wasn’t that they stopped wanting it. But they stopped just the same. And as they walked slowly out of this very strange evening, it was the end of a season, the end of a career, and the end of an idea.

The season ended for the Pistons.

The career ended for Joe Dumars.

And the idea ended that Grant Hill alone is capable of taking this team any farther up the mountain than the very first ledge.

First round, last rites.

“It was a very surreal night,” said Dumars, after the Pistons went down, 87-75, in Game 5 to end their season. “To end your career in a building where you never played before — just completely surreal.”

You can say that again.

Sunday should go down in NBA history under the heading “How Not To Conduct A Playoff.” Held at the Alexander Memorial Coliseum on the campus of Georgia Tech — thanks to television, naturally — the evening had the wild atmosphere of a high school tournament, and about the same organization. The Pistons made their entrance into Game 5 by exiting a college locker room, jogging past the trampoline and the blue gym mats, heading down the corridor, turning at the Xerox machines, stepping over the coffee-stained carpet, around the corner and into the gym.

Don’t forget your book bag.

There were problems with the scoreboard, problems with the shot clock, there were even problems checking into the game. Dele got into a shouting match with one of the scorekeepers who didn’t wave him in following an out-of-bounds play.

“You homing me? You homing me?” Dele screamed, even as coach Alvin Gentry slammed his hand on the scorer’s table.

Geez. First the Pistons play in a half-empty Georgia Dome, then they go to a third-empty Palace, then they play in a college gym. If this were a best-of-seven series, Game 6 would be at a high school, and Game 7 would be on a sandlot.

Of course, there will be no more games. The Hawks made sure of that — this time not with their giant center, Dikembe Mutombo, but with their sharpshooting from the outside and their physical defense inside. Atlanta outshot and outrebounded Detroit. And a night that held so much promise for the Pistons, instead ended the way every postseason has ended since Detroit lost the crown to Chicago back in the Bad Boys days.

First round, last rites.

Hill’s initial charge

Oh, the game began with the right attitude. Hill came out as if this might be his last game ever, stealing the ball on the first possession, scoring three straight jumpers followed by two lay-ups, and contributing 10 points, three assists and two rebounds in the first quarter alone.

With the small crowd making big noise, the game seesawed back and forth on hot jumpers and sizzling drives. The teams traded long three-point bombs and hard fouls that sent players sprawling to the floor. Grant Long — a former Piston, naturally — kept sticking the dagger into the Pistons with jumpers and rebounds.

At the end of three quarters, the Pistons were only down 68-64. Four points short, with 12 minutes to go.

And then it all came apart. The Pistons couldn’t buy a basket. Christian Laettner — who shoots as if he’s better than he actually is — missed several key jumpers, and Hill was contained, and Dele ultimately fouled out. Rebounds flew over their heads. Whistles went unblown.

Next thing you knew, Detroit was down 10, there were 49 seconds left and all that remained was waving farewell to Dumars.

First round, last good-bye.

Joe D.’s exit

This was no way to end a career for Dumars, who was the best thing the Pistons had for years. To go out on a Sunday night, without network TV, in a backup building that wasn’t even full — well, it’s just wrong, that’s all. A second-class ending for a first-class guy.

Dumars’ performance matched the ill fit of the night. He scored just one basket in six tries, and spent much of the evening feeding Hill, as if to say to him: “This is your show now. Take it over.” Hill tried. But in the end, all Dumars could do — like the rest of Detroit — is watch the effort fall short.

No way to end a career. Better to remember Dumars the way he was Friday night at the Palace, his home arena. He lit the place up for 20 points, spurred the Pistons to victory, and got a “We want Joe” cheer as a send-off. That’s a better picture. It fits the man. Sunday’s game was like seeing Joe in someone else’s clothes.

There was one nice moment here, with those 49 seconds left, when the crowd rose to salute Dumars. He put his hands on his hips, frustrated with the loss and almost embarrassed that he had been caught in his moment of departure. Then he sighed, hugged several Hawks players, did the same with their coach, Lenny Wilkens, and waved once to the crowd before sitting down.

“Did it feel the way you thought your final moment would feel?” he was asked.

“I thought I would be able to just walk off the floor and not feel anything,” Dumars said. “But I have to admit it was pretty emotional.”

“Where those tears or sweat coming from your eyes?” he was asked.

“Sweat,” he said, smiling.

We can only guess whether he’s telling the truth.

Take note, fans: When Dumars walked off, the Hawks crowd roared in approval. There was genuine affection from these Atlanta fans, which only shows that not every opposing player has to be an enemy.

If cheers were points, the Pistons could win a title on Dumars alone.

Another failed season

But that’s not the way things work. And so Joe Dumars is officially gone, and Grant Hill is now singularly The Man on this team. And it is quite obvious that he is not enough.

Hill has stepped up, yes. He showed an intensity in Games 4 and 5 that hasn’t always been there in his younger — read: nicer — years. He is tired of losing, that much is apparent. And he appears to be doing what he can about it. He had 21 points and 11 assists in 42 hard-fought minutes Sunday.

But either he needs to become an deadeye outside shooter — as well as a post-up center — or the Pistons need some other guys. Dele, although he came back to life Sunday, is clearly too much of a head case to rely upon, and if there’s any way to lose him, the Pistons should. Laettner had better be less than 100 percent, or he’s simply too slow to help. The rest of the cast has some talent, but nothing that’s going to lift this team to a new height.

The Pistons need big, and they need shooting, and they need playmaking, and, well, the needs go on. But if they don’t address them, I wouldn’t count on Hill being here very much longer.

It was a first-class chance in a second-class facility, but in the end, it was all too familiar. The star player sighing. The coach shaking his head. And one more memory of the glory years of this franchise waving good-bye.

First round, last rites.

Not to be obvious, but this is getting old.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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