HOUSTON CHAFES UNDER MALICE AT THE PALACE

There were two stories going Wednesday night at the Palace, small and big, the small story being that Allan Houston returned to Detroit, and we now know where to find all those collars that Doug Collins doesn’t wear: right around Allan’s neck.

Houston played as if he couldn’t breathe. He clanked his first three shots, got called for two offensive fouls, turned the ball over, banged into people, got fooled by Joe Dumars, intimidated by Grant Hill, smoked by Lindsey Hunter and booed every time he touched the ball. Houston was booed during warm- ups. Remember how Bill Laimbeer was treated in the Boston Garden?

That was nice compared to Houston’s reception at the Palace.

So weak was his two-point performance, and so obvious was his discomfort, that only the heartless would not feel sorry for the guy. He looked like a kid who had his Elmo doll stolen. Of course, it didn’t help that the big screen showed fans with signs like “HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM” and “GO BACK TO NEW YORK.”

“I expected some boos,” said a dejected Houston after the Pistons blew out his Knicks, 112-78. “I didn’t know they would be this harsh.”

Hey. What did he expect? You leave a blue-collar town like this for a bright lights-big contract place like New York, you better figure the folks will be insulted. Besides, when Houston took his $56-million deal without giving Detroit a final swing at him, he said, “It’s just business.”

You can’t say “it’s just business” one day, then expect it to be “family” the next.

Frankly, I found it rather amusing, all the sad stories this week about Allan: poor guy hasn’t heard from his old teammates, poor guy doesn’t think he got a fair shake when he left. Allan is a terrific kid, but he has to learn that, in pro sports, the size of the sympathy decreases in direct proportion to the size of the bankroll.

Not that he had much to say about it Wednesday night. This game was so one-sided, Houston must have felt like the opponent in the 15th round of a
“Rocky” movie.

The great irony is that the Pistons shot 59 percent from three-point land and hardly looked like a team that would miss an outside shooter. Wasn’t that the lament when Houston bolted?

“A lot of things didn’t go right for us tonight,” Allan said afterward.

He put his chin in his hands. “Actually, nothing went right.”

Well. He did lead his team in turnovers. Take no prisoners

But, as I said, Houston is the small story. The big story — and in the end, the far more important one — is that the Pistons, whose only black mark this season had been the inability to beat a top team with a big man in the middle, just beat a top team with a big man in the middle.

Beat them? The Pistons destroyed them. They had a 20-point lead in the third quarter, and they acted as if they were losing. They banged for rebounds, they worked the ball around. They kept the intensity at glass-breaking level. And their shooting? Whoa. They shook rainbows loose from the rafters.

Here was Hunter, with 22 points in the first half, sinking baskets as if the rim were nine feet wide. Here was Dumars draining long-range buckets without blinking, 15 points in the third quarter. Here was Hill with another triple double.

The Pistons won every quarter. And they held Patrick Ewing to six points. The Knicks came in with a seven-game winning streak. You would have thought they’d come in wearing leg- irons.

“People said we haven’t beaten the quality teams, but now we have,” said Hunter.

You can call the ambulance anytime. Time to enjoy

When the game ended, Houston walked off the court with his head down. If the Knicks’ plane were waiting in the tunnel, it wouldn’t have been close enough.

It’s funny. I did a halftime interview with WFAN, the New York radio station that carries the Knicks games. The host in New York expressed her city’s displeasure with Houston. She asked me, “Can this guy be a good player?”

I felt like saying, “That’s a question you should ask before you give him
$56 million, isn’t it?”

Instead I said, “Let’s remember that one game doesn’t make a season.”

And the truth is, that’s the right answer. The Knicks were coming off a tough win over an excellent Utah team Tuesday in New York; the Pistons were well-rested. When these two teams play again Saturday night in the Big Apple
— the night after the Pistons play Indiana — we’ll learn how much fresh legs had to do with it.

But Collins made a good point. “Everyone seems to be waiting for the bottom to fall out of this team. Why not enjoy it?”

And he’s right. Much of the cloud that seems to hover over this team comes from the summer day when Allan Houston went away. Well, Houston just came back, and when the night was over, the Pistons had won their 19th game a month earlier than they did last year.

Dumars, who has seen it all, had this impression: “Tonight was the first time I saw the intensity for an entire game that we need to beat the elite teams in this league.”

Meanwhile, those who came to see how much Allan Houston meant to the Pistons left with this impression: We lost a player, we gained a team.

Who says there’s no Santa Claus?

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