PHILADELPHIA – Less than five minutes into the game, Rasheed Wallace had his headband knocked to the floor. Chauncey Billups managed to pick it up, with the ball in his other hand, and returned it to his teammate, who pulled it on lopsided. Then up court they raced, like a couple of running kids who paused to pluck flowers.
Pick it up. Put it on. And get it over with. That loose headband might as well have been this first-round series, which flew off unexpectedly, then was strapped on back where it belonged: one-sided. The Pistons, in closing out Philadelphia on Thursday night, hit double figures before the 76ers hit single figures (a 10-0 lead).
It was over before it started, the way people once felt this series would be. From the second half of Game 4 to the closing seconds of Game 6, the Pistons shook off rust and rumor and rediscovered themselves. They solved the riddle of this fast but limited opponent and stole its mojo. By the first quarter Thursday, the Pistons not only had time to pick up loose headbands, they could have purchased three-piece suits and waited to have them fitted. Whoever started games hot in this series tended to finish them that way. The Pistons opened with a 28-9 run.
The rest was just veggies and dessert.
“It was important for us to get it done first,” Richard Hamilton said. Mission accomplished. By the time the lights dimmed in the city of brotherly love, Detroit looked very much like a team with the second-best record in the NBA, and the 76ers were calling their travel agents.
“We were playing 18 minutes a night, our starters, the last three weeks,” Chauncey Billups told TNT after the 100-77 closeout victory. “It took us a little while to get our rhythm back. But once we did and we figured them out, we’ve been successful.”
Pick it up. Put it on.
And throw it away. Disposing of the Sixers
This series is useless now, as meaningless as a finished workout. Detroit gained nothing unexpected by advancing – and in fact, wasted energy and fatigue in letting things go six games. Philadelphia may have been grateful to make the playoffs and ecstatic to win a few nights, but the Pistons are not shooting varmints here. They’re hunting big game. Their minds should be on Orlando already, and the only way Philadelphia should creep into that space is to remind them how wasteful and dangerous it is to give a lesser team some life and hope.
“You can’t underestimate,” said Philly coach Maurice Cheeks, “the value of experienced players ” who can turn “a bleak situation into a positive one.”
And that is what Detroit did, emerging from a 2-1 deficit to now win three straight, including two on the road. Rip Hamilton led the way Thursday, he was all but magnificent, hitting his first five shots, pulling the floor out from under the 76ers by himself. He hit shots in motion and he hit them from a dead stop, jumpers, lay-ups, he had 24 points and five assists.
“We wanted to come out and be aggressive on the defensive end,” Hamilton said. “My first score was actually off a steal, and that really set the tone.”
Cheeks concurred. “Their defense was suffocating.”
The last starters were pulled with more than 11 minutes left. The place emptied so quickly in the second half, the cleanup crew could have finished the upper deck by the final buzzer.
And that’s how championship hopefuls do it. The Pistons handled Philly on Thursday exactly how they should have handled them. No oxygen from the start. No oxygen at the finish.
Pick it up. And choke it. Rocky road ahead
OK. For the observer, a couple things from this series. Although Rip had some awful stretches, when he lit it up, he really lit it up. The Pistons must know that creating his own shot is not Rip’s forte. But off screens or in motion, he is almost peerless. Using him right – and not letting him go wrong – is a key as they go on.
Creating his own shot is something Billups is supposed to do, and must do, if the Pistons are going to have an alternative to hoping their jumpers go in. Billups also had some scary underperformances this series. He has to stay aggressive, and must recalibrate the balance of the game when it’s tilting too much to one of his teammates at the detriment of another.
Rasheed? He’s Rasheed. Antonio McDyess – Mr. Broken Shnoz -is a warrior, but Jason Maxiell is really coming, and Flip Saunders may have gained something since Maxiell began starting.
Meanwhile, Tayshaun Prince had some truly welcome star performances in this series. He can be such an X factor when his offense shows some hunger. He carried the team while it was busy finding itself. And his typically tough defense helped make Andre Iguodala a shadow in search of its caster.
By the end, everyone felt good about the Pistons again. But you know this and they should know it, too: Philadelphia isn’t even a warm-up for what they will face down this road. Orlando will be a challenge. Boston (or Cleveland if it rises to the occasion) will be much more. And the NBA Finals? Against perhaps San Antonio? It will make this series look like a second-grade spelling test.
Orlando “is gonna be totally different,” Billups told the TV cameras. And in many ways, he better be right. It was funny watching Rasheed fix his outfit in those opening minutes. But next series, let’s hope the Pistons keep their heads and headbands on from start to finish.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.