PISTONS 79, CAVS 76 | DEJA TWO!

And after all that, after the crazy second quarter, the crazy third quarter, the emergence of a bench star, the circus shot by Rasheed Wallace for the lead, after all that, here we were again, LeBron James out top, with a decision to make, the game in his hands.

And here he came, down the lane.

In Game 1 at the Palace, he dished the ball to Donyell Marshall, who missed a three-pointer, and a rainstorm of criticism came down on LeBron’s head. Why’d you pass? You’re the best in the league – shoot it!

This time, no pass. LeBron drove on Rip Hamilton, and then, effectively, drove on two other Pistons and muscled up a shot. The entire city of Cleveland wanted a whistle. No whistle. The shot clanked away, the rebound came to Larry Hughes, he shot, it clanked away, the ball came loose, Anderson Varejao tried to tip it in, it clanked away, Cleveland coach Mike Brown blew a gasket, and the final score, when the histrionics ended, was – get this – 79-76 – same as the first game.

“It’s heart,” Wallace said after the emotional Game 2 victory. “The guys in that locker room we don’t give up with a deficit. … If we go hard and lose that’s fine. But it’s just resilience with those guys in that ballroom.”

Well. I’m not sure they play in a ballroom. Then again, there does seem to be a lot of music and confetti at the end.

New game, same ending. The Pistons once again proved the steadier team, the more experienced team and, therefore, the winning one. They own a 2-0 lead in this series, despite notable holes in their usual game, despite falling way behind, despite some bonehead mistakes.

They held LeBron James to 19 points -just five in the second half. They won with stifling defense in the second half that turned the game into a rugby match. They won despite too many turnovers and not enough scoring.

And they won because of a couple of good decisions made a long time ago.

A very happy birthday

Thursday was Joe Dumars’ birthday, and as he sat watching his team, his gifts to the Pistons – his decisions – were coming back to him. One was Rasheed Wallace, a guy he traded for when everyone advised against it; the other was Jason Maxiell, a guy he drafted who most of the fans had never heard of.

Those acquisitions were on full display in Game 2. On a night more schizophrenic than beautiful, Wallace got it started, Maxiell took it over and Wallace finished it.

What amazing performances by these two. Wallace, who finished with 11 rebounds and 16 points, was white-hot intense in the final period – in which he scored 10 points and snagged six rebounds. He had strong rebounds, made a great block, stole the ball and went coast-to-coast off the glass – Rasheed coast-to-coast? – and he hit the biggest shot of all, a pull-up over James with only 24 seconds left. That shot came after his dumb pass that turned the ball over to Cleveland.

“Whoever turned it over has to get the ball back,” Wallace explained afterward.

Or, as Rip Hamilton told TNT: “When he’s mad, nobody in the world can stop him. He was mad, he was pissed off.”

Or as Chauncey Billups said, “Rasheed just never ceases to amaze me.”

That sums it up, doesn’t it?

Instant energy

And then there was Maxiell, the second-year player out of Cincinnati. With a name that reminds you of a cassette tape, he is not the tallest guy on the Pistons, only the heaviest. He is not the most famous of the big men, only the most energetic. On Thursday night, he wasn’t the starter, wasn’t the first choice or even the second choice. But he was the most effective.

Called upon early after Rasheed sat down with foul trouble and Antonio McDyess took an elbow, Maxiell brought an aggressive energy sometimes missing from the Pistons’ offense. He didn’t enter the game, he game swinging from the rafters like Spider-Man.

First he blocked LeBron. That’ll get anyone pumped. Then he grabbed an offensive rebound and slammed it home over LeBron. Say hello. Then he took an alley-oop from Billups and slammed it, hanging on the rim. He grabbed another rebound. Blocked another shot. Grabbed another rebound. Put in a lay-up. Grabbed another rebound. Drew a foul.

By the time the half was over, Maxiell was Detroit’s leading scorer (11), leading rebounder (five), and leading shot-blocker (two). Remember, this is his first year in the playoffs.

He continued his great performance in the second half, and finished with 15 points, six boards, and a new respect from both the fans – and certainly the Cavaliers.

“I told Jason that was probably his best game all year,” Wallace said.

Certainly the most important.

Meanwhile, what of the Cavs? They now have lost two games. Fans on the lake will moan about the foul that wasn’t called on LeBron’s final shot as much as they moaned over his final decision in Game 1.

“We’re a no-excuse team,” a tight-lipped Brown said. “I told the guys that have to get ready for Game 3.”

And you know the Cavs will be angry come Sunday night in Cleveland. If I were the Pistons, I wouldn’t count on doing this over and over. It’s a dangerous way to live. There are some problems that need addressing.

Billups needs to huddle with the brain trust and come up with a way to utilize his talents against a defense that seems as intent on stopping him as the Pistons are on stopping James. Billups, in 20 minutes of action, had one shot in the first half. One shot? And just two assists against three turnovers. The Pistons always will struggle to the finish line when their main engine is stuttering that way. After Game 1, Detroit spoke of Billups getting rid of the ball faster, making quicker decisions.

Was that all talk?

There are other issues. Tayshuan Prince seems to be expending so much energy guarding James, he’s too tired to finish his shots. He missed all eight Thursday night. By contrast, against the Bulls, he averaged around 18 points a game. That’s a big hole.

And Chris Webber, as inspiring a story as he makes, is simply ineffective so far in this series offensively – missing close in shots from nearly every angle. And when he misses, rebounds are tough to come by because the middle is already clogged with defenders.

But OK. If that sounds like a lot of criticism for a victory, it is. That’s because the Pistons aren’t in this to survive the Cavs. They are in it for a crown.

Thursday night, they took another step in that direction. They played championship tough in the final minutes. They got help from Cleveland’s youth and a referee’s non-call. And they saw the benefits of two of Joe Dumars’ better decisions – on his birthday. Who says you can’t regift?

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.

MAXIMUM EFFORT Here is how Jason Maxiell fared in Game 2 compared with Game 1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

fg 3pt ft reb ast to stl pf pts Game 1 0-0 0-0 0-0 1 1 0 0 2 0 Game 2 7-9 0-0 1-6 6 0 1 1 2 15

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