JUST ONE, BABY!

The storm arrived, the thunder clapped, and lightning shattered the darkened sky.

And that was inside the building.

the referees’ whistles seemed to say, “It’s slipping away, Lakers,” the Pistons showed their greatest resolve in these NBA Finals, solving the riddle that has befuddled the rest of the league — how do you stop Shaq? — by simply hacking away at his power as if trying to fell one of those beasts in “Lord of the Rings.” He gave everything he had.

They took it, then stepped back, exhausted but victorious.

And watched him go down.

The giant is falling. The Lakers’ machine is clanking in the city of motors and it may not even have enough juice to take this series home. No team has come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, which is where the Lakers are today, thanks to the Pistons’ stirring 88-80 victory Sunday night at the Palace. By the end of the night, as the Pistons were high-fiving, the stars from L.A. were scowling and screaming at referees. Phil Jackson, who has never faced this kind of deficit, was visibly frustrated. But what drove them more crazy than anything else was this:

They have a big man. Guess what? The Pistons have a few, too.

And while Shaquille O’Neal was simply incredible — 36 points, 20 rebounds — Rasheed Wallace had the game of his Pistons career. He finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds. Those statistics may not quite match up Shaq’s.

Then again, Rasheed has teammates.

“Rasheed was terrific tonight,” coach Larry Brown said. “I was so proud of him. We said along we need him to play minutes and hit his shots. Tonight he showed his value.”

Convinced yet?

Rasheed and his helpers

Here was Wallace, in this critical Game 4, doing everything he was brought here to do. Grabbing rebounds. Swiping loose balls. Blocking a Kobe Bryant shot before it ever left his hands. Spinning on one Lakers defender after another, for bank shots, for lay-ups, for fallaway jumpers. Whenever the Lakers threatened any late charge, Wallace was there, calmly letting loose with the stroke of a player shooting practice jumpers.

Swish. Swish.

“Just making shots,” Wallace said when asked what was different about this game. “Just making shots.”

Right. And building the Brooklyn Bridge was just hammering nails.

Well, it is in the Pistons’ manual not to make too much of things. And for sure, this victory was Rasheed, and it was more than Rasheed. Here was Chauncey Billups, with more crushing three-pointers, and then, on the sweet end of a fast break, rising and spin-slamming for two of his 23 points. Here was Ben Wallace, missing a free throw but getting his own rebound and muscling it in for two.

Here was Mike James, pushing the ball upcourt, racing back-to-back possessions through a lazy Lakers defense to score on fast-break lay-ups.

Here was the Pistons’ defense, swarming on Gary Patyon, Luke Walton, Derek Fisher. And here were those same defenders conceding only one good night, for Shaq, and making pretty much everyone else miserable. Take away Shaq’s numbers and the Lakers were just 17-for-57. The pundits call that amazing defense.

Around here we call it Sunday night.

Convinced yet?

Battling the beast

All right. A few words for Shaq. Having tamed the guards and the sentinels, it was time for the Pistons to face the L.A. monster face-on, the beast that lurks in the biggest dungeon, the one that comes out only when the castle is about to fall. The Pistons had dealt with O’Neal before in this series, but as part of a cast. Now, with the Lakers back on their heels, it was clear, right from the start, that this night would be about one big man and one big man only, and how far that man could carry the team in purple.

He began inside, slamming his first basket, rim-rattling his second. He moved slightly outside, hitting an eight-foot jump shot, then a nine-foot hook shot, then back inside for another slam, then a rebound, another rebound, a feed to a teammate for a lay-up and then back inside for another dunk. And that was in the first 12 minutes. He was bathed in sweat and had enough to bathe a few more people. The passes came into him. The rebounds went to him.

Midway through the second quarter he had half of his team’s points, more than half of its rebounds, and nary a shot farther than nine feet away. He kept the Lakers in the game that first half, even as some of his teammates — including a freewheeling, wildly shooting Bryant, who missed seven of his first eight shots and eventually 17 of 25 — did their best to keep the score down.

But like a bull in those one-sided bullfights, too many swords eventually lead to wobbly legs. O’Neal could not carry the Lakers all game long, and he tired just enough in the fourth quarter. And when he began to topple, there were the Lilliputian Pistons, lots of them, ready to pull him over.

OK, so it’s almost obscene to call Ben Wallace a Lilliputian. It’s all relative, right?

“We tried to get a body on him, keep him off the block, whatever it took,” Ben Wallace said.

What it took was shutting down the rest of the team, something the Pistons have been doing marvelously all series long. Fisher, Karl Malone and Devean George had one basket apiece.

Convinced yet?

The countdown begins

Let’s call this what it was. For four quarters on the Lakers’ most desperate night of the season, the Pistons weathered them, matched them, pulled ahead of them, and, finally, held them off.

What else is left to throw at them in this series? They absorbed the Kobe miracle shot. They absorbed Malone and Payton without blinking. They absorbed Walton, the unexpected force off the bench. Finally, Sunday night, they absorbed the biggest gator in the swamp, wrestled with him, took some bites, shed some blood, but in the end, subdued Shaq into submission.

What’s left? Unless Jackson has some hidden roster of young, fast and healthy players, Game 5 or 6 or 7 will ultimately, it seems, yield a similar result. The Pistons are simply well-matched against this team: when talent meets talent, when body meets body, and when hunger meets hunger. Especially when hunger meets hunger. What they are doing is a testament to guys working together and an indictment of guys working for themselves.

“Do you guys feel like it’s over?” someone asked Jackson.

“They don’t feel it’s over,” he said. “They just want a fair shake. They want an even break from the refs. They want to feel like they’re not playing uphill.”

Folks, when they start blaming the referees, it’s over.

And Phil knows it.

So where are we now? Planning a parade route? Chewing our fingernails?

I’ll tell you this much. The Pistons should enjoy these next 48 hours. To be on the cusp on doing the ultimate in your sport — for the first time — is a feeling most athletes later say never comes again, it is lightning in a bottle, pixie dust in a bag, you are so fully conscious, the best thing in your world is about to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. It is the morning of the last day of school, the drive to the prom, the hotel hallway on your wedding night, all things anticipatory, when everything is possible.

Let them enjoy it. Let them count the minutes until Tuesday night. And let the basketball pundits who thought this thing would be over in five games go back and erase the names they had filled in and switch them when no one is looking.

Meanwhile, Detroit is tingling with an excitement it never expected to feel in this season of weird summer weather.

It was, as they say, a dark and stormy night.

And nobody seemed to care.

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

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