He moves like a water bug, so fast that sometimes all you see is the streak of where he was. Into the corner, back into the middle, through two defenders, back into the corner, grab the ball, turn, shoot. Richard (Rip) Hamilton is such a whirling dervish that you’re not sure where his shots really begin. Is it when he flicks his wrist, or when he lifts his arms, or when he lifts his legs, or when he starts running 10 seconds before he ever gets the ball? One thing is certain, when that ball comes, there is little hesitation as to whether it’ll be launched.

Let her Rip.

Here’s the simple truth, folks. Richard Hamilton has been the best and most consistent Piston in these playoffs. I bring him up today, on the morning of what could be Detroit’s Waterloo — Game 3 of an Eastern Conference finals that it already trails, 2-0 — because it is clearly time for some good news.

There’s your good news, running back and forth on the baseline like a Pac-Man in gobble-dot heaven. Hamilton, No. 32 in your programs. Thin, fast, braided, headbanded. No matter what happens in this series, he has held up his end of the deal.

“I’m loving this,” Hamilton said of the playoff experience. “It’s everything I thought it would be. Loud crowds. We’re on national TV every night. There’s only four teams left playing basketball, and we’re one of them. Oh, yeah. This is it.”

Better stats in the playoffs

Now, if you’re wondering how a man can be that upbeat when most of the fans are cloudy and gray, consider where he is coming from: Washington, D.C. Hamilton played the first three years of his NBA career in the nation’s capital and got no closer to the playoffs than Tom Daschle did.

But this year, in the first three rounds of his playoff career, Hamilton has not only done his part, he has raised his game. He’s better now than he was in the regular season, scoring more points (22.8 vs. 19.7) and playing more minutes (38 vs. 32). And as the playoffs have gone along, his numbers have only gone up.

Remember back a year ago? If you think the Pistons are in the outhouse today, here’s two words for you: Jerry Stackhouse. He was so shut down in last year’s playoffs, his locker should have had a grate over it.

Remember? Against Toronto, facing elimination in Game 5, when Stackhouse went 1-for-10? Or against Boston, again facing elimination, when Stackhouse went 3-for-18? He was an empty box. A spent fighter. He made fewer than one out of every three shots.

Hamilton, the player for whom he was traded, is shooting 45 percent by contrast in these playoffs. And on the Pistons, that gets you a sharpshooter badge.

Let her Rip.

Lessons learned in high school

Hamilton is an asset not only because he is accurate, but because he can shoot anywhere along his path to the basket. He may go all the way to the hole, or pull up two feet, four feet, seven feet or nine feet away. This is impossibly hard to do, since your momentum becomes part of the flight of the ball. I asked Hamilton how he got so good at something so difficult.

“In high school, I was like everyone else,” he said. “I dunked. I just dunked. Where I went to school, there weren’t many guys who could dunk, so I stood out.

“But then I went to the ABCD camp over the summer. Kids from all around the country. And everyone there could dunk. And I realized right then, I better come up with something else not everybody can do.”

So he became the stop-and-pop guy. Which, with his boundless energy, his racing from spot to spot, gives the Pistons some much-needed grease on their grinding offense.

Hamilton had a great Game 2 on Tuesday night, scoring nearly a third of the Pistons’ points, slicing through defenders, driving the baseline, taking handoffs and lifting toward the hoop. The only thing that stopped him, it seemed, was his coach, Rick Carlisle, who took him out for 3 1/2 crucial minutes in the fourth quarter.

That should not happen anymore. Hamilton provides movement, he draws fouls, and the Pistons need both to stop the Nets’ fast-break juggernaut.

Maybe Detroit wins tonight, maybe it doesn’t. But before the hammer comes down, fans should realize this team has upgraded nicely at the shooting guard position, and the kid keeps getting better and he’s going to be here for a while.

As for what the team does next, well, I’m no coach, but it could do worse than to follow the water bug, that’s for sure.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read Albom’s most recent columns, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.htm.

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