HOMESCHOOLED – BY FAMILIAR-LOOKING TEAM

“We’re gonna … get back to playing the way we’re supposed to, or we’ll get our butts kicked by a young, hungry team.”

– Lindsey Hunter, after the Pistons’ 90-86 loss in their playoff opener

So here, in the final minute, was Jason Maxiell, stretched high as if on a rack. Remember, if Maxiell were a tube of toothpaste, he’d be squeezed from the bottom and all balled up near the top. Thick chested, broad shouldered, he is a mountain of a torso, and mountains are damn hard to move.

But here he was Sunday night, feet planted, arms up, and he took the full force of a driving Philadelphia center named Samuel Dalembert, who is 6-feet-11 himself, and – bam! – down went Maxiell, with his arms still up, and he hit the floor, with his arms still up, and he waited there, with his arms still up, until he heard the whistle signaling an offensive foul.

The building exploded in joy. Maxiell clapped. The Pistons trailed by one, it was now their ball, and that play should have been the turning point of this game, should have been the capper on a great night by Maxiell, a third-year player coming into his own.

Instead, the Pistons continued shooting like amateurs, missed a wide-open jumper by Tayshaun Prince, missed an easy eight-footer by Rasheed Wallace, missed a final desperation three-pointer by Chauncey Billups, and saw the young, hungry team that Hunter referred to dance off the floor with the first big upset of the NBA playoffs.

“We’re gonna be all right, man,” Billups said after the loss. And you want to believe him. This can’t happen again.

Right? Some simply terrible statistics

The Pistons won’t blow a 15-point second-half lead again, right? They won’t miss 12 of their last 15 shots, at home, including eight of their last nine, right? They won’t see their best player, Wallace, fail to come through in the clutch after playing so well earlier in the game, right?

“That last bunny that I missed.” Wallace said. “That was a damn-sure bucket I should have made.”

So that’s all this is, right? Bunnies? “Missed easy shots,” as coach Flip Saunders said? A lucky break for a no-name, seventh-seed franchise, right?

Let’s hope so. But let’s also remember a few things. These 76ers, better than their record (40-42), are coached a guy named Maurice Cheeks, who is a Philly version of Joe Dumars, a quiet, no-nonsense former guard who has – after losing Allen Iverson – seemingly cast this team much closer to his own style: hard-driving, relentless, with no superstar mentality to muck things up.

“We were a little nervous in the first half,” Cheeks admitted. “… I told them, ‘Slow down.’ “

Which is when they really got going. The Sixers scored the first eight points of the second half, in one of those sleepwalk stretches the Pistons seem doomed to now and then. A potential blowout became a dogfight.

And now the series is as well. You can’t stumble too often

Now, it’s true, Billups and Richard Hamilton are not likely to miss four important free throws down the stretch, as they did Sunday. And the Sixers themselves only made one basket the last 3:27 – they just went to the line a lot.

But the Pistons already have given Philadelphia something it may not have had before Sunday. Confidence. A bit of entitlement. When asked about coming back on the playoff-savvy Pistons, forward Andre Iguodala said, “That’s Detroit. They tend to go to sleep at times.”

Doesn’t sound like a guy intimidated to me.

The guard play needs to improve. (Hamilton missed 12 of 17 shots.) The celebrated “new” bench was little more than Maxiell. Wallace said he’ll “take this one on the chin,” but he’s the last guy who should feel responsible. He played hard from the opening tip.

This isn’t hockey. NBA upsets are rare in the first round. But as we know around here, the basketball playoffs are a marathon. And what you do in the first mile can come back and haunt you in the 20th.

Let’s call this one a freaky Sunday.

And let’s hope we’re right.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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