MITCH ALBOMEAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The final buzzer sounded, and the Pistons hugged in the eerie silence of a disappointed crowd. Or maybe it wasn’t hugging. Maybe, after what they had done — enduring those swelling and dwindling leads, snaring an exhausting victory, saving themselves from the fires of elimination — maybe they were just holding each other up.

“If there was ever a doubt about this team’s heart,” Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ president, said when this was over, “they answered it tonight. They never gave up.”

Dumars looked tired. And he didn’t even play.

Coming home. The easy way out would have been to fold. Close the suitcase. Head for the sunshine of some Pacific island and nurse your woes over a poolside umbrella drink. Hey. The San Antonio Spurs did it — and they’re the defending NBA champions. Why not the Pistons?

Instead, that’s what people are saying this morning: Why not the Pistons? Why can’t they win this thing now? They have a Game 7 on the schedule, after showing moxie in this crucial Game 6, going into the dark hole of the Jersey swamps and swimming away with a wrenching victory. Eliminate the other half of last year’s NBA Finals? Why not the Pistons?

“We said before this started, it’s gonna be a grind,” said Richard Hamilton, who had 24 points and the final Pistons jumper to salt away this 81-75 victory. “We did everything we had to do to win this game,”

And in doing so, the Pistons rose a noticeable notch Sunday night. They won the first game they absolutely had to win this post-season, in an unfriendly building, after a haunting triple-overtime loss less than 48 hours earlier. They came back from a dismal start, missing eight of their first nine shots, and they came back from a brutal third quarter, missing seven of their first eight shots.

By the end, their scoring was as dry as a sore throat, as dry as a carcass in the desert. But somehow, in the closing seconds, one shot here, one block there, one rebound over here, and, at last, the sweetest sound in their world — a buzzer with the Pistons on top. They clawed up the mountain. And they reached the final ledge.

It isn’t everything, but it’s something. It’s a ticket back home, and a continuation of the best part of the season for at least another four nights.

No rerun of last season

“I felt the last two games we played here, we didn’t compete,” center Ben Wallace said in the upbeat locker room. “Tonight, we competed on their floor. It’s maybe the deepest we’ve had to dig down to get a win.”

It’s also a counter punch to a team, New Jersey, that was threatening to become the mental roadblock to these Pistons that the Boston Celtics once were to the Bad Boys. A loss Sunday night would have meant back-to-back playoffs in which the Nets won four in a row from Detroit. The fact that the Pistons won the first two this time wouldn’t have made it better. It might have made it worse.

Instead, the Pistons have done something simply by forcing this second-round series back to the Palace. They showed that they are not willing to accept a predetermined fate. They showed they are not going to settle for last year’s reruns.

Not that it wasn’t hairy for awhile. The start did feel as redundant in this building as a Bruce Springsteen record. The Pistons shot horribly at first, and fell behind, 13-2. You could hear the echo of Larry Brown saying “when you fall behind quick on the road, it’s the kiss of death.” That sentence hung in the air — and on Brown’s face — as those first few minutes unfolded.

But then something happened. Rip Hamilton hit a jumper. Then a lay-up. Then another lay-up. The Pistons crawled back in, then ran way ahead — as New Jersey couldn’t buy an outside shot. By halftime, the Pistons had a 14-point lead. On the road?

Yes. And then they nearly squandered the whole thing. They came out of the locker room flat as warm soda, and went long scoreless stretches as useless as burnt toast. They had 10 points in 12 minutes.

But when the fourth quarter came, they dug into that place that separates the fighters from the quitters. When they couldn’t shoot, they rebounded. When they couldn’t run, they rebounded. When the starters went dry, the bench helped out. Mehmet Okur — yes, he’s actually on the team — came alive just in time, grabbing crucial rebounds. Lindsey Hunter hit a huge three-pointer. Corliss Williamson played tough.

And while the Nets scrambled back several times to within two points, they never took the lead. It was as if that lead was the national flag for the Pistons, and no way they were giving it up short of death.

Finally, in the last two minutes, Rasheed Wallace, who seemed to float in and out of the game, floated back in when it counted the most, making a turnaround jumper over Jason Kidd for a four-point cushion. And Ben Wallace blocked a shot. And with 15 seconds left Hamilton hit his 18-foot jumper over Kidd that put the thing away.

“That’s one of those shots you dream about as a kid when you’re playing out side and it’s 12 midnight,” Hamilton said. “I mean, that’s what you play for.”

That, and this: That last buzzer, a few sweaty hugs, and the sweet silence of an unhappy crowd.

A time to rest and regroup

So what do we learn from this victory? Well, for one thing, life is much better when you hit your shots. For the night, the Pistons shot 44 percent. I think they got that by shooting 66 percent half the time and 22 percent the rest. They also outrebounded New Jersey by a huge margin — another fine thing when so many of your shots are clanking.

This much should be obvious by now: When the Nets can’t run, they are eminently beatable. And the best way to keep them from running is to make your shots and kill their breaks.

“Our work isn’t done,” Wallace warned. And his teammates better heed that. There are few teams in the NBA better at staring down adversity than New Jersey. The Nets are still the team with the NBA Finals pedigree, remember. And come Thursday night, unlike Sunday night, they will be every bit as desperate as the Pistons.

And just as rested. Exhaustion played a part Sunday. (Kidd, who played 57 minutes in Game 5, played 45 in Game 6 and was throwing up airballs by the end.)

But there are now four days until Game 7, so exhaustion will not be a factor. Both teams will have plenty of time to plan. Plenty of time to think. And one night to prove who deserves to go on.

“This is what you live for, Game 7’s,” Chauncey Billups said. “Tonight was win or go home — for real.”

And Thursday will be more of the same. For now, a nod to a Pistons team that — let’s face it — many thought would simply take the easy way out, play hard until the finish and accept its fate.

Nuh-uh. Here’s what the Pistons now know that maybe last year they didn’t. Where there’s life, there’s hope, where there’s hope, there’s a jump shot, where there’s a jump shot, there’s a chance, and the chances fell Sunday night, as surely as Detroit rose.

One game to settle it now. Find something to do for four days. The Pistons aren’t going anywhere.

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

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This