OH SO COLD!

The Miami Heat without Shaq and Wade is like an Italian restaurant without pasta and meat. Which is how you knew the Pistons were in trouble Tuesday night. Several times, with those big threats off the menu, the Pistons fell behind to the bread and veggies of Miami’s roster.

And you’re not going to win that way.

One down.

Down one.

“Everybody contributed,” said Heat coach Pat Riley, after a 91-86 Game 1 victory in the Eastern Conference finals.

And that, for the Pistons, was the problem

How did they lose? Pick your poison. Poor shooting. Sagging defense. No spark. And a startling inability to attack when the battle was ripe. Dwyane Wade played just 27 minutes? And he still scored 25? The Heat had 52 of their points in the paint? Hey. Why not just give them a ladder? Let’s face it. When 37-year-old Gary Payton is racing past you for lay-ups, you are not on your “A” Game.

“We looked tired the whole night,” lamented Tayshaun Prince.

It’s true. If Game 1 were a Starbucks, the Pistons were decaf.

But then, fans sensed this defeat early on, when, despite the Palace bedlam, Miami raced to an 11-0 lead. Wasn’t this the team that had been off since, like, 1974? Wasn’t it supposed to be out of sync, in need of a tune-up?

Yeah, right. They say rust never sleeps, but it clearly naps at the Townsend Hotel, where the Heat is staying. Its players spent part of the day enjoying the streets of Birmingham – some were seen wandering along Woodward – then spent the night storming the hardwood in Auburn Hills.

Here’s how rusty the Heat was: It shot 75% for the first quarter.

Here’s how off the Pistons were: The only thing that kept them in this game was their free-throw shooting!

“It’s like we were swimming upstream the whole time,” coach Flip Saunders said.

One down.

Down one.

A lead that faded fast

“We didn’t take advantage when their guys were out,” Prince said.

Here was Flare No. 1: With five minutes left in the second quarter, the Pistons had Shaquille O’Neal and Dwayne Wade right where they wanted them – on the bench. Both had three fouls. Both were done for the half. They draped themselves in towels. It was clear sailing now, right?

Wrong. Instead of grabbing the game, the Pistons – and we’re talking four of their five starters – handled it loosely, missing shots, throwing bad passes, getting called for offensive fouls and – worst of all – allowing lay-ups to bench players Alonzo Mourning and Payton.

Detroit was three points down when Shaq and Wade left, and four points down by the end of the half.

That, friends, is what they call going backward while standing still.

Here was Flare No 2: With three minutes left in the third quarter, Shaq joined Wade on the bench again. The Pistons had a 60-57 lead. They promptly allowed a three-point basket to Jason Williams, then another to James Posey, and proceeded on a dry stretch that went well into the fourth quarter. I’m not sure how many shots in a row they missed. I stopped counting at 12.

What’s the point? “We kind of lost our composure during that stretch,” Prince said.

Not to mention their aim.

Look. The book on Miami, at least as far as the Pistons are concerned, is let the two stars get theirs, and make sure nobody else hurts you.

But while Shaq and Wade had their numbers Tuesday, when the rest of the roster hurts you, you can kiss it good-bye. Guys like Williams (10 points on 5-for-7 shooting) going uncontested to the hoop? Antoine Walker (17 points) spotting up for open three-pointers? The ageless Mourning (3-for-3) getting inside for a lay-up?

Can’t have it. Not when you’re shooting as badly as the Pistons shot Tuesday. For the night, they shot under 38%.

Here was the final insult. With 2:20 left and a nine-point lead, the Heat deliberately fouled Ben Wallace, sending him to the line, where he promptly – in harmony with the rest of his teammates – missed both shots. Miami got the rebound and headed happily upcourt.

One down.

Down one.

Game 2 is the big one

Now, we have learned nothing if we make some sort of judgment by this first game. Think back to the first blowout of the Cleveland series if you want to see how foolish it is to take Game 1 and try to stretch it over the next six. Playoff basketball is about adjustments, always has been, and Pat Riley is old hand at this – and Saunders had better become one.

Some of Tuesday night, of course, was fatigue. It took a lot of moxie and elbow grease to win that series against Cleveland, and you had to figure there would be a letdown.

There was. The Detroit starters were the ones who looked rusty. And Rasheed Wallace, for the first half, was invisible. I saw his name on the stat sheet, but I honestly can’t remember a single thing he did.

“He’s had a long stretch here,” Saunders said. “He looked worn down a little bit tonight. We’ve got to get rejuvenated. That game on Thursday night becomes huge.”

If this were the regular season, Tuesday would be the last night of a long road trip, when you have to accept that there’s nothing in the tank. You write those games off as part of the grind.

But that’s in the regular season.

These are the playoffs. Every game is critical. The Pistons never seem to be happy unless at part of their collective bodies are hanging off a ledge, over a fire, with a dragon snapping its teeth.

So be it. They have set the stage for drama. Now we hope they wake up quickly enough to provide some. I suggest a double espresso.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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