PACERS TURN THIS SERIES UPSIDE DOWN

An hour before Friday’s game, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was in the tunnel outside the locker room, talking to a group of reporters. One of them asked if he thought his team really could improve on its heretofore miserable shooting.

“Oh yeah,” he said deadpan. “We worked extra on shooting during shoot-around.”

So that’s it.

I knew we should have locked the gym.

Bursting through a sheath of rim rattlers and backboard clunkers, the Pacers became a virtual shooting gallery Friday night and the Pistons were the ducks all lined up in a row. By the time this thing was over, all the assumptions about this series had been shot down, as had the Pistons’ advantage.

“We weren’t ready to play,” coach Larry Brown said after the embarrassing 83-68 loss that evened the Eastern Conference finals at 2-2. “And that’s on me.”

Well, that’s noble of Larry. But I didn’t see him shoot any clunkers or let up on defense. And the Pacers worked the Pistons over like a nervous man works over a rubber band — stretched, pulled and finally snapped.

What was saddest about this was the Pistons’ failure to protect the area they cherish most: the interior. Remember the “No Fly” zone declared by the Pistons after Tayshaun Prince’s big block? It was more like the “Fly By” zone on Friday night at the Palace. The Pacers had 32 points in the paint. Jermaine O’Neal dunked inside, Austin Croshere dunked inside. Al Harrington came down the lane for a banker. Anthony Johnson — and admit it, you’re not sure which one he is, right? — came down the lane for a lay-up.

Anthony Johnson?

And then, once the Pacers had softened the Pistons on the inside, they attacked from the outside, raining three-pointers with newly found authority. Reggie Miller, OK, you expect something from him. He had three. But Ron Artest — who clearly visited a hypnotist or an exorcist — had 12 points in the first quarter, including two treys. And Croshere, who started in place of Jeff Foster (and who says Carlisle can’t make adjustments?), hit three three-pointers, none bigger than a 26-footer with 0.7 seconds before halftime that set the tone for the rest of the night.

“So much has been said about missed shots, so we tried to remind these guys before the game that they all know how to play basketball,” Carlisle said.

Dang. We were hoping they had forgotten.

Things change.

No offense, really

There had been debate in this series as to whether it was “the offense or the defense?” No debate on Friday. It was the defense (Pistons) and the offense (Pacers).

It’s one thing to surrender points. It’s another thing to surrender real estate. The Pistons surrendered the flag on the hills they had always claimed as their own. They had the intensity of a low-wattage reading light. They let Pacers get past them and Pacers outleap them.

And offensively, they were like soda left outside for days. Flat and flatter. Ben Wallace, who contributed 17 points in Game 3, had no baskets and one free throw in Game 4. Prince did him one better. He had no points at all. In 32 minutes? No points?

“The thing our guys have got to remember is that the pressure is not on them,” Carlisle said. “The pressure is on Detroit, because their whole season is made or broken on whether they make it to the finals.”

The Pistons played as if the weight of that was on their every move.

Things change.

It’s back to Indiana

So what does it all prove? Not much, beside the fact that both teams are capable of terribly off-nights. The Pacers aren’t going to shoot this well the rest of the way. But then, they weren’t going to shoot 32 percent for the rest of the series, either. And the Pistons aren’t likely to come out with such low energy again. That happens sometimes in Games 2, 3 or 4. Not once you reach 5, 6 or 7.

Having said that, there was a sense around here that we should clear out the hotel rooms for Shaq, Kobe and Jack Nicholson, as if this series already had become more of a coronation than a competition.

Consider this a lesson learned. Playoff series, like car rides with your kids, are longer than you anticipate and more fraught with ups and downs than you’d like.

Here’s the painful truth: Indiana now has the edge. The Pacers do not have to win again in Detroit to win this series. The Pistons, meanwhile, must take one in Indianapolis. In preparation for Game 5 there Sunday, the Pistons should burn the tape from Friday night.

They shot just 31 percent. No one beside Richard Hamilton did what he was supposed to do. And the series is all tied up.

“I don’t think we can play any worse than that,” Brown said, glumly.

And that may be the only good news of the night.

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

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