ORLANDO — Ben Wallace leapt for a rolling rebound and rammed it through the rim. A minute later, he whacked a Gordan Giricek shot halfway to the Magic Kingdom. Two minutes later, Chauncey Billups, finishing the night of his NBA playoff life, banged home a three-pointer that silenced the crowd. And before you knew it, the Pistons were on their jet, waving good-bye to the city of Mickey and Minnie, with one question on their minds:
What are you doing Sunday?
The Pistons are playing basketball. Not pickup basketball. Not a dribble game in the driveway as they pine away for a lost season. Nuh-uh. Playoff basketball. A Game 7. They came. They saw. They came home — still breathing.
Despite an offense that looked, at times, like it was passing a kidney stone, despite the curse of having not won a road playoff game since Doug Collins was the coach, despite the magical Tracy McGrady, despite the hostile Orlando crowd, despite the history that says teams don’t come back from 3-1 deficits, the Pistons, Friday night, dragged this series all the way back to where it began: They are coming home to the Palace for one more shot at proving their No. 1 seeding isn’t a fluke.
What are you doing Sunday?
“Get the beer vendors there early; I’ll buy the first round,” said guard Jon Barry, after the Pistons dug deep to win Game 6 of this first-round marathon, 103-88. “We want that place to be rocking.”
Never mind the booze. If the basketball is as gritty as it was Friday night, the crowd will be pumped enough. This was a game that helps define a team. The Pistons pulled out every stop. They banged, walloped, grinded and banged some more. It’s true, at times, the best you could say about their shooting was that they showed the rim a lot of love. But when shots clanged off, they chased the rebounds. And when balls came loose, they dived and poked at them. And when Orlando got sloppy with possessions, they stole them.
And when they had to have a hoop, Rip Hamilton was there, popping in 22, and, more than anyone else, Billups was there, showing the leadership he had cultivated in the second half of the regular season. Chauncey came out firing, making sure his team didn’t fall into an early hole: By the end of the first quarter, he had 18. By the end of the game, he had 40. He also double-teamed McGrady, played 45 of the 48 minutes, had four assists and four rebounds, and hit 11 of his 12 free throws.
That’s prime time.
“I like games on the road,” Billups said. “I like hearing the air go out of the building. I like taking down the crowd. That’s what I live for.”
Where was McGrady?
On the other hand, McGrady, who had been Mr. Everything in this series, was merely mortal Friday night. He finished with 37 points, but they may have been the least influential 37 ever scored. His shot selection was bad. He never got into a flow. Worse, his on-court identity never emerged. He seemed lost between dishing off and taking over. He’ll take a hit for that. These games are meant for players like McGrady. In order to be truly great, a kid like him must pull the sword from the stone, realize who he is, own the game if possible. Lots of players can take over Game 1’s or Game 3’s. It’s taking over the closers that makes the superstar.
“Maybe I have to be more selfish next game,” McGrady said after Game 6.
“Tonight was too much Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton.”
Funny. Weren’t we all saying “too much Tracy McGrady” just a few days ago?
And wasn’t McGrady mocking the Pistons’ crowd Wednesday night, mouthing the words “3-2”?
What are you doing Sunday, Tracy?
Those are fighting words
Ah, well. Such is the ebb and flow of a series. A few days ago, Detroit’s postseason seemed ready to die in the dirt before spring brought it to blossom. Then the Pistons blew out the Magic by 31 on Wednesday, and broke a six-year road curse Friday. “This was about survival,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “And I give our guys a lot of credit.”
But Detroit needs to be very careful here. The perfect trap is to survive an embarrassing exit at home, go on the road and do what few expect you to do, then come home figuring “We’re all set.”
That’s when you lose.
“What’s the most dangerous part of Game 7?” Wallace was asked in the Pistons’ locker room.
“Coming out too confident,” he said.
Maybe Wallace needs to make another media statement. It was after the Game 4 loss that he deliberately barked a comment to the press, referring to unnamed teammates and saying, “Let them think they had a good season.”
Now, Wallace admits, it was all motivational.
“I wanted them to see that,” he said, snickering. “Hey. I took some psych classes at school.”
Psych ’em up. Rouse ’em up. This was a night to find out what you’re made of, and a team that doesn’t score still scored 103 points, and a superstar who can’t be stopped was somehow, some way, stopped, and the No. 1 seed is still alive, with the home-court advantage back in its portfolio. Game 6 was the bang. Game 7 will be the buck. What are you doing Sunday?
Or is that a trick question?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.