OVER … AND OVERTIMEHILL RUNS INTO A MOUNTAIN — AND SEASON ENDS

ATLANTA — Every time Grant Hill tried to take the season into next week, it kept spitting back in his face. He drove to the basket, went to lay the ball in, and had it swatted against the backboard by the mountainous Dikembe Mutombo. He drove to the hole, dished the ball to Otis Thorpe, and watched his shot blocked by the mountainous Mutombo. He took a whippet pass from Joe Dumars, went up for the easy slam — and had it blocked again by the mountainous Mutombo. On that play, Hill was left in that most embarrassing position, hanging alone, holding nothing but cold iron. He finally let go, of both the rim and the season. He dropped like a leaf.

Never mind how Doug Collins screamed during Sunday’s time- outs, “THE TOUGHEST TEAM WILL WIN! THE TOUGHEST TEAM WILL WIN!” In the end, this was less about heart than height.

And for all the ways you can dissect the Pistons’ fate this morning — home, done, still looking for their first playoff series win in the Hill-Collins era — the fact is, they are out because they have no big man, no defense in the middle, and no rebounding to speak of. Basketball is still a tall person’s sport. And there’s something wrong when your point guard, Lindsey Hunter, is your leading rebounder in your season’s biggest game.

“Maybe I can hang from a pole this summer and see if my arms grow longer,” said a grim, head-shaking Hill, after the Pistons blew an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter and exited the playoffs with an 84-79 loss to Atlanta in Game 5. “Mutombo got me cleanly on those blocks. I thought I was past him and then he came around with those long arms and got me.”

He sighed. “Now I have to try not to have nightmares about it all summer.”

Hill meets Mountain. Mountain wins.

Poor Grant. More than anyone on the team, Sunday was about him. Could he come up as big as his shadow? Could he pull this franchise to the next level by himself? The answer — although not entirely his fault — was no. He had nine points in the first half, 12 points in the third quarter, and nothing — zero — in the fourth.

Now he sat in the locker room, a black turtleneck on his torso, a towel around his waist, lost somewhere between coming and going. Which is very much how we feel about this Pistons’ season this morning, isn’t it? Magnificent at times, superb in its improvement. But when it comes to the part that really counts, the post-season, they are still out in the first round, same as last year — and the Hawks don’t have Shaquille O’Neal or Penny Hardaway.

Hill meets Mountain.

Big men rule

“You know, there are a lot of intangibles in this game,” said Joe Dumars, pulling on his socks in the quiet locker room. “But one thing you can count on is a 7-foot-2 guy is always going to be 7 foot 2.”

He forced a sad laugh. “That must be nice, to have that every night.”

And make no mistake, that was the difference. Mutombo — who virtually won Game 1 by himself — had 17 points and six blocks in Game 5. Oh, yes, it would have helped if Dumars hit a few more of his shots. And it would have helped if Hunter were more on target, and if Hill could have gone to the free-throw line more than six times. And yes, the highlight film will show you two semi-miraculous Atlanta baskets in the final 75 seconds that sealed the win:

* A top-of-the-key jumper by Christian Laettner — think of his game-winner for Duke against Kentucky — that gave Atlanta a two-point lead.

* A “let’s see you do that again” heave by Steve Smith, who hadn’t made a three-point basket all day, but who threw one up as he was falling out of bounds. It swished to put the Hawks up by five.

Still, as brilliant as those shots were, they would have been afterthoughts if Hill had not been swatted away by Mutombo, if Thorpe had not been pushed around inside, if Terry Mills had not been outdone by Laettner. Big men rule.

“What do you know now that you didn’t know when this series started?” Hill was asked.

“Not to believe the good feeling just because you’re up a game,” he said.
“A few days ago, we thought we were going to the second round for sure. Everyone was confident. And now this.”

He’s right. True champions kill the snake when they have it by the throat. The Pistons should have taken this series in Game 4. They had the Hawks reeling, but came out light, and Atlanta dictated the game.

“They made adjustments,” said Collins. “A shot here, a rebound there . .
. “

His voice trailed off. He looked like he might weep.

“How disappointing?” someone asked.

“It’s painful to lose. But am I proud of them? Yes I am. We’ve made a 180-degree turnaround from when I took over two years ago. And that’s what I promised we’d do.”

A word about Collins. He has indeed done a magnificent job of rebuilding this franchise. He inspires wins on nights when other coaches can’t get their players’ attention — which accounts for the great regular-season mark. And he finds talent in players that others didn’t know existed.

But if he doesn’t lighten up, he’s going to smother this team to death. There were points in Sunday’s game where he did everything but step on the floor and take the ball out of a Piston’s hands. On one play, in the fourth quarter, Hunter got the ball on a break and had a one-on-one to the hole. Doug stopped him dead in his tracks, screamed, “No, hold! No!” Hunter stopped and exhaled in frustration. The ball was worked around, and eventually went back to Hunter for a long-distance shot — a shot that missed.

I know Collins does it because he cares. I know he eats, breathes and sleeps this team. But he has to trust the players up and down the court, or they will never deliver and will always resent him.

Speaking of which, I think we can say good-bye to Otis Thorpe. His unpredictability was an albatross this series — he was flat-out awful in Game 4 — and if he is back here next year, pouting and scowling and walking away from the huddle, then this team might not make it to January without a murder.

What next?

So where do they go from here? The Pistons still haven’t won a playoff series since the year they surrendered the title to the Bulls, 1991.

“We need to get bigger,” Collins admitted. “We need to find new inner strengths from the people we have. And we need to find a big man who wants to come to Detroit to play with Grant Hill.”

Hill. Yes. Unfortunately for Grant, this series may raise more questions than it answers. Here was a playoff that came down to the last five minutes, and why was Hill not calling for the ball? He did not have it in his hands to start the plays. Isn’t that what the superstar does?

Earlier in the day, we’d seen Orlando and Miami go to the wire, with Penny Hardaway taking one shot and Tim Hardaway taking the next. And we all know how Michael Jordan calls for — no, demands — the ball when the game is on the line. Where was Hill in this one? Was it Collins’ over-designing?

Or was it simply that after those two blocks by Mutombo, Hill was rattled?

If so, he has a long summer to get his equilibrium back. “It’s not as bad as two years ago,” Hill said, “when we were planning our summer in February.”

No, it isn’t. But championship players need to hate any final moment that doesn’t come with a trophy. Hill needs to detest days like Sunday, so much so that he keeps them from happening. I know he’s the most wonderful guy on the planet. But anger and selfishness can be good things when you have as much talent as Hill does.

Of course, height’s a nice thing, too. And unless the Pistons want Hill hanging in that closet, stretching his arms, they’d better do something this off-season. They will likely lose Mills. They need to keep Hunter. Dumars’ contract will be a financial Rubik’s Cube. And moving Thorpe will not be easy.

For now, you can nod proudly to an improving franchise, which gave us many a great night in the regular season. But this post-season cannot be called a success simply because the Pistons tried hard.

Hill meets Mountain. Mountain wins. Now the long, hot summer, and then they start climbing again.

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