LONG? YOU BET! THRILLER? YUP! TROUBLE? BIG!

He should have been the hero. Chauncey Billups should be doing interviews about the miracle shot, how he knew all along that it was going in, how he practiced that shot when he was a kid, how he dreamed it just the way it happened in the final second of regulation Friday night, just inside the half-court line, launched like a prayer, dropping toward the backboard, kissing the glass in a frame of red light and banking in for a tie game.

He should have been the hero — and the Pistons should be celebrating a victory inspired by that most unlikely of three-pointers. Instead, they are facing a Herculean challenge, going home for the season unless they win two from a New Jersey team that has beaten them three straight.

Final score, 127-120, in a triple-overtime, four-hour-plus evening sure to be remembered as a classic by everyone else, and as classic heartburn for Pistons fans. For here is the killer: Billups made the most unlikely shot of the night, but he couldn’t make enough of the normal ones — while a big, chunky redheaded bench player named Brian Scalabrine (I know, “Who?”), a guy who was averaging 2.2 points a game in these playoffs, did what Billups and the rest of the Pistons couldn’t do: made shots when they counted.

Not just any shots. Scalabrine, playing only because Jersey was so depleted in the big-man department — four of its players fouled out in this Game 5 marathon at the Palace — hit one big three-pointer after another. Four-for-four? Six out of seven shots total? Seventeen points? Brian Scalabrine?

Yep. And every one seemed to be a dagger.

“I thought this game went six overtimes,” Scalabrine said when this was over. “We just happened to make a few more big shots.”

Brian Scalabrine? Not Kenyon Martin? Not Jason Kidd? Nope. Those guys were fairly neutralized. Brian Scalabrine?

Yes. His final three-pointer with 44 seconds left in the third overtime — and just two seconds left on the shot clock — will stick forever in the craw of Pistons fans if New Jersey can finish this second-round series in Game 6 or 7.

And if the Nets do, Billups will remember the night that could have been his, maybe should have been his.

But wasn’t.

They couldn’t buy a basket

“I’m tired,” Billups said after playing 55 exhausting minutes. “But a game like this is tough to lose. It just seemed like every time they needed a big shot, they knocked one down.”

It’s true. The Nets made nearly half of their 24 three-point attempts. But it’s not like Billups and the Pistons didn’t have their chances. Billups heaved up 29 shots. He made only nine. That’s less than one in three — including numerous lay-ups and open jumpers that he couldn’t convert.

Oh, sure, he wasn’t the only one. Lindsey Hunter had chances in the second overtime but missed open three-point tries and finished 0-for-5. Mehmet Okur was a non-factor, making one of three. Tayshaun Prince, who started hot, wound up 5-for-15. And Richard Hamilton, who had been having a terrific playmaking game, fouled out in regulation with 11 points — if you can remember back that far.

“Chauncey’s shot gave us a chance,” Ben Wallace said in a quiet locker room after this finally ended. “This was a night lots of guys stepped up. But Chauncey’s shot — that gave us the chance.”

They couldn’t capitalize.

You could blame whistles, you could blame the fouls, you could blame the bad, evil referees who call them — and they were awful, turning the night into a screechfest. But in the end, in the game of basketball, you have to make your shots. The Pistons not only didn’t make those shots when they needed them, they endured stretches of futility, missing their last 11 attempts in regulation before that miracle by Chauncey.

They shot 38 percent, at home. They made only six of their 25 three-point attempts. And they missed 12 of 42 free throws. You can add the numbers up, down and sideways. You have to make your shots.

Was it an amazing game? Sure. A battle. A marathon. An exhausting night. By the end, Ben Wallace was out, Rasheed Wallace was out, Rip Hamilton, Kenyon Martin, Jason Collins, Rodney Rogers — heck, it was easier to say who was still eligible. I don’t want to use that tired phrase “a war of attrition,” but Isiah Thomas was sitting courtside and you know, they still have his uniform somewhere. . . .

The Pistons could have used his shooting, that was for sure.

The trip back to Jersey

OK. I can’t resist. I’ll say one thing about the referees in this game: They were ridiculous. There were so many bad calls and so many makeup calls that the night had a feeling of a referee convention, where every possible thing would be called, just so the attendees could see it. In the final five minutes of regulation, there were 12 fouls assessed. In the first overtime there were seven more. That’s 19 fouls in the most crucial time of the game. It got to the point where players were almost waiting to hear the refs, rather than trying to play.

Hey. We want to hear that many whistles, we can follow Pam Anderson down a beach.

But understand this. The refs have been a bugaboo for the Pistons since the moment they went to New Jersey for Games 3 and 4. Quick whistles can make you rethink your strategy in any basketball game, and the Pistons on the road lowered their guard and let up on their intensity when the refs started tooting away. But when the Pistons do that, they are no longer the Pistons.

Friday night, they did a better job of fighting through the screeching sounds and playing the way they know how to play, but the cost was dear. They lost several key players to six fouls. They fought on, depleted as they were.

Now they have to decide on a philosophy for Sunday night’s Game 6 at New Jersey, where the whistles are not likely to be any friendlier. If the Pistons play timid, they might as well hand the series to New Jersey. The Pistons don’t shoot well enough to keep the Nets from running their explosive break. The only way to contain them is to play them like glue.

The Pistons may be hearing whistles in their sleep, but when they awake, they must close it all out. Unless they want to close out themselves.

In the end, despite the refs, this was a magnificent night of basketball.

Big moments. Big shots. Big blocks. Big turnovers. Those who were there will remember that — when they finally wake up. “There were times when I looked out on the court and felt pretty special to be part of a night like that,” Pistons coach Larry Brown said.

It could have been more special. It could have belonged to Billups and his teammates and his miracle half-court shot. Instead, the memory is pocketed by the visiting Nets, and a kid named Scalabrine, who, if nothing else, eliminated the “Who?” from his name forever. And left a lot of Detroiters saying, “What if? . . .”

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

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