ONE DOWNOKUR’S FINAL SHOTS JUST MISS; KIDD’S DOES NOT

First, let’s get our miracles straight. There was the miracle shot that won this game for the New Jersey Nets, a desperate fadeaway jumper by Jason Kidd that shimmied through with 1.4 seconds left. Then there was Detroit’s near-miracle basket — a lob to Mehmet Okur that he tapped up, missed, pushed up again, and missed as the buzzer sounded.

But never mind either of those. The real miracle of Sunday afternoon’s opener of the Eastern Conference finals was that the Pistons were within striking distance at all.

“What’d we score, 11 points in the last quarter?” point guard Chauncey Billups asked in the Pistons’ locker room, after Detroit fell into an 0-1 series hole.
“Eleven points? How many were free throws?”

Seven, he was told.

“Seven? We made . . . two baskets?”

Right. Two baskets in the fourth quarter, total, both by Richard Hamilton. Seventeen other shots were taken. None went in. Two-for-19. Or 10.5 percent. You can talk all you want about Kidd’s amazing shot that gave the Nets the 76-74 victory. You can talk about Ben Wallace’s heart-stopping defensive effort, his grabbing 13 rebounds in that final period alone. You can talk about defense, fast breaks, coaching.

In the end, Okur said it best in his Turkish-stained English.

“I go up, I try,” he said of that last shot, “but there was no in.”

There was no “in” all day long.

The running game

“You’re not gonna win many playoff games scoring 11 points in the fourth,” Billups concluded.

To make matters worse, when the Pistons weren’t busy missing shots, they were scrambling to get the number of the Jersey-plated truck that ran past them. We had heard that the Nets liked to run the fast break. Now we have pictures to prove it: Kidd bounce-passing to assorted teammates for slams. Richard Jefferson finishing a break with a 360 jam. Kerry Kittles after a steal, laying it in.

Here is the biggest number from Sunday’s game — besides the two-basket thing. New Jersey had 28 fast-break points; Detroit had four.

In case you can’t do math — I myself needed help on this — that means almost 40 percent of all the Nets’ points came on fast breaks. We know the Pistons are a great defensive team. But I’ve yet to see anybody play defense while running behind the opponent.

“It’s very simple,” said backup guard Chucky Atkins. “We have to protect the ball and not let them run.”

A big no on both counts.

The sad thing about this loss for the Pistons is that they had crawled back from a first-quarter battering. Through tenacious defense, and a third quarter that looked like, well, you know, an NBA box score, 27 points, they actually entered the final period with an eight-point lead. The Palace crowd was on its feet, expecting what no longer surprises us here in Detroit, a victory that no one else in the country thinks this team can get.

And then it fell apart. The Pistons tried Corliss Williamson. He missed three straight shots. They tried Tayshaun Prince. He missed six straight — and most of those didn’t even hit the rim. They tried Billups, their upset specialist. He missed three.

Even the foul line was no friend. Wallace missed two. Hamilton missed one. Prince missed one. Was there a lid on that iron?

“Eleven points in the fourth quarter,” Prince said, sighing, “is not gonna get it done.”

No in.

It’s Kidd’s play

Now, depending on whom you spoke to, this was either New Jersey playing its game or Detroit NOT playing its game. Nets coach Byron Scott said, “In the second and third quarters, we stopped running. We allowed them to do what they wanted to do.”

Meanwhile, Pistons coach Rick Carlisle said, “We got in a hole because we allowed them to get their transitions.”

Well. Somebody allowed something.

But let’s allow these words for Kidd. He’s a machine. In the first period, he was like a train robber on speed, hopping from car to car, grabbing the loot, hopping to another car, robbing it blind. He had three steals and four assists and six points in the first quarter alone. And even though he went cold shooting the rest of the game, he was there at the end, with a huge shot from the right corner over Okur’s outstretched arms.

“That was the first game-winning shot I’ve made all year,” Kidd said.

The Pistons don’t want to hear that. This guy doesn’t need any more confidence. And neither do the Nets.

The danger of this loss — beyond the obvious — is that it lets the Nets continue a roll that gets exponentially harder for Detroit to derail. The Nets have won seven straight playoff games, and have only two losses all postseason. The hex that the Palace was supposed to hold over them is gone after Game 1. So, too, is the Pistons’ home-court advantage. It will be harder to play any mind games with New Jersey. All those cards were dealt away Sunday afternoon.

Two baskets? Ten-and-a-half percent shooting? The funny thing is, with numbers like that, had Okur’s tip gone in, and had the Pistons somehow taken this game, there might have been a different miracle to talk about: Detroit might have been the first team to steal a playoff victory on its own floor. But as Okur said, there was no in. So that idea’s out.

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.

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