NOTHING BUT NETS

In the NBA, there are players who rise, and players who rise to the occasion, and here was Ben Wallace rising so high to block a Michael Redd jump shot you could drive a tour bus underneath him. Extending his huge frame as straight as celery, he caught Redd’s ball at the peak of its arc and swatted it into next week.

And when he landed, to a mighty Palace roar, even Ben had to admit that was something, and he shook out his frame like a bull after tossing his rider for the last time.

Milwaukee, bucked.

Here is the new, new thing in the 2004 playoffs, defense that is downright offensive, and the Pistons are registering the patent. All night long in this series-clinching victory, Detroit did the things it needed to first, and the things it wanted to next. The Pistons needed to control rebounding. Did it. They needed to stifle Milwaukee’s scoring threats. Did it. They needed to make the blocks and steals that lead to baskets.

Did it.

And then they started running. Here was Wallace, intercepting a lob for Keith Van Horn, poking it to Richard Hamilton, who lobbed it to Tayshaun Prince for a dunk. Here was Wallace again, stepping in front of a pass and stealing it like a point guard, pounding a dribble and dishing to Chauncey Billups for a three-point dagger. Here was Hamilton ripping the ball out of Redd’s hands and Rasheed Wallace pinning a Brian Skinner shot against the backboard, and Prince — on a career night — hounding after a rebound, tipping it, tipping it again, saving the possession, which led to a Rasheed dunk.

You want to beat teams in the playoffs? First take away their basketballs. Then score points. They’ll go home quickly enough.

Milwaukee, bucked.

“We’re not getting caught up in the hoopla of it all,” said Ben Wallace, who had 12 rebounds and four blocks in the 91-77 victory Thursday night that advanced Detroit to the Eastern Conference semifinals. “Experience is on our side.”

So are defense, depth and — to keep with the “D-word” theme — dash. Thanks to their stifling defense, the Pistons had 21 fast-break points Thursday night, proving that you don’t have to gun to run. You lost count of their lay-ups. You lost count of their dunks. But only after you lost count of their steals, blocks and disruptions. The mark of their defensive effort? You also lost count of their opponent’s air balls.

Milwaukee, bucked.

A Prince of a playoff player

And no doubt as the Bucks hit the pillows early this morning, their nightmares looked a lot like Tayshaun Prince.

“Tayshaun was as consistent as a player could be — over all five games,” coach Larry Brown said. “I thought at times our team tonight was kind of hyper — except for him. He was poised the whole time.”

And he’s in only his second year.

On Thursday, when Prince wasn’t grabbing rebounds (nine boards) or dishing the ball (eight assists), he was hitting jumpers, or laying it up, or slamming a dunk to end a break of his own, finishing with 24 points.

“It wasn’t like I was the go-to guy,” he said, shrugging it all off. “I got what I got because they were doubling other guys. As for being calm out there? I’m just a laid-back guy. I’m the same every game.”

But things are not the same as last year at this time, when the debate was whether Tayshaun should be playing more minutes. Much has changed.

Let’s face it. A championship march — or any march, for that matter — begins with one idea: that you are moving forward. That means avoiding the mistakes that set you back. Last year, the Pistons fell behind an inferior Orlando team, three games to one, and had to claw and scrape to escape the first round.

No such problem this time around. With the exception of a four-point loss in Game 2, the Pistons were as efficient as the auto part for which they are named, churning through Milwaukee four times — including the final three in a row. Win. Win. Win. Move on.

The only crime they committed Thursday night, as Brown suggested, was having too much energy.

There were times they threatened to run off the court and right through the tunnel.

But to paraphrase Martha Stewart, that can be a good thing.

Don’t forget Memo and ‘Sheed

Some more promising signs for the next round (which begins, given the way the NBA works these days, sometime in August) include the following:

Prince has clearly upped his game again — just in time. The lanky forward, skinny as a Q-tip, says all his time at Kentucky “playing the Dukes and the North Carolinas” honed his edge when it comes to big games. He certainly seems to rise to the occasion. Thursday night, he was sheer confidence, sure of his footing and his shooting and his effort. He didn’t even commit a foul until the end of the third quarter.

More good news: Mehmet Okur found the bottle with the note in it, and swam from the island back to the boat. The player who was all but shipwrecked just a few weeks ago — benched and publicly chastised by Brown — is now playing with more confidence and brio. He goes to the hole, creates openings, and on Thursday, he had eight points, six rebounds and three assists in 15 minutes. He even no-look-passed to Prince.

Memo, a no-look?

Rasheed Wallace? The truth about Rasheed is we still haven’t seen his best yet. He is clearly hurt — an arch injury — yet the Pistons still won this round without his best games. That only makes them scarier. He is a dimension that they lacked so dearly last year when they faced New Jersey — a big man who can score inside and out. The fact that he plays rugged defense and looks to pass rather than shoot — almost to the point of excess — is all just gravy. He doesn’t make the Pistons, but he makes them better.

And so does Brown. Detroit rarely seemed to lose its way in this series (save a minor blip in Game 2) and while only time will tell if the Pistons are better coached under him than under Rick Carlisle, they certainly are happier. They enjoy the game. They run like crazy. And they relish — yes, relish — playing defense. It is hard to remember when doing the hardest thing in basketball seemed to be so enjoyable. Just ask Michael Redd, who’s still trying to figure out how his shot wound up in the seats.

Milwaukee, bucked.

Now let’s see them net New Jersey.

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

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