Tracy McGrady was surrounded by doom. He tried to lose Michael Curry on a screen, but Chauncey Billups slid over. He tried to lose Billups, but Cliff Robinson slid over. He tried to go past Robinson, but here came Curry again, with Ben Wallace on the way, and McGrady fell, grabbed at the ball and, with no other option, looked desperately to the ref and called time out.

He can have all the time he wants now. McGrady — who just a few days ago was bragging about going to the second round — is going home instead, and Detroit is playing Tuesday night in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Nothing Magic about it. When the Pistons do what they do best, they outwork you, outhustle you, outmuscle you and outlast you. They did all four to the Orlando Magic on Sunday — along with a bonus, outshooting them — in a 108-93 blowout that was a glorious watershed moment for this franchise.

“We were in the grave — all you had to do was throw dirt on us,” Wallace said after the victory. Only six times in history had an NBA team come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff round. But history was in the raucous air Sunday.

Here was Billups, with 37 points, firing long three-pointers over McGrady’s head. Here was young Tayshaun Prince, shooting fearlessly, growing before our eyes, scoring 14 in the second quarter alone.

And here — wait, take a breath for this one — here was Wallace, playing in the ozone, his mighty right arm like something out of a Gladiator movie, slamming away one Drew Gooden shot, another Drew Gooden shot, ramming in a rim-rattling dunk on a rebound, then, for good measure, poking a ball free, leading a fast break and laying the ball off the glass like a point guard. Once you’ve seen that, you’ve seen everything.

“This team can beat anybody,” Wallace said in the relieved but steely locker room after the Pistons claimed the series, four games to three. “We kept on playing. We did it. It’s over.”

Oh yes, it’s over. In hindsight, it might have been over in Game 5, when Orlando packed it in early and got blown out by 31. Or it might have been over in Game 6, when Orlando, at home, spent more time arguing with refs than concentrating on the game. But it was definitely over here in Game 7, when late in the third quarter Billups canned a 21-foot jumper and the crowd erupted and the scoreboard flashed a 26-point lead for the home team. Twenty-six-point lead? In Game 7?

“We knew if anyone was gonna get us out of the debacle we were in, it was gonna be us,” said a smiling Richard Hamilton.

Debacle debunked.

Nothing Magic about it.

Watch out for those holes

“A week ago today, we knew we were going to make history one way or the other,” coach Rick Carlisle began in his press gathering after the game. “We talked about it as a team, and the guys decided it was a chance to turn our greatest adversity into our greatest opportunity.”

Mission accomplished. The Pistons didn’t just win three straight games, they ripped them off the bone and swallowed them without chewing. A 31-point victory. A 15-point road victory. And a final blowout in which the offensively challenged Pistons shot — are you sitting down? — 55 percent from the field.

“I’m really proud of our players,” Carlisle said. “To crawl out of a 3-1 hole
. . . is a great tribute to the fact that we are a true team.”

There are, of course, two ways to look at what happened. The first is that it proved this team has character, perseverance and, now, a small square of historical footing. The second is that the Pistons were the No. 1 seed in the East, playing the No. 8 seed and the least experienced team in the playoffs, and all they’ve really accomplished is taking seven games to do what everyone figured they could do in five or six.

The truth? It’s a little of both. Playoffs are tough. Only one of the first rounds this year was over in fewer than six games. You might remember a certain Detroit team that needed all five first-round games to dispatch a lowly Washington team en route to the 1988 NBA Finals. (Hint: They were called The Bad Boys, and they took the L.A. Lakers to seven games before narrowly losing.)

What matters is not how long it takes but how much you learn. The Pistons learned this much: They can’t repeat the pattern.
“No more 3-1 holes, man,” Hamilton said. “This was hard.”

Rookie comes to the rescue

Now credit where credit is due. Carlisle took heat for being intractable after those three losses, but he maintained composure, made a few changes — most notably promoting Prince — and he didn’t gloat when he crossed the finish line.

The players? Well, how about a hand for Billups? Big guns step up at desperate times, and Billups had 77 points in the last two games. He also, at times, made McGrady look downright human.

And how about Prince, who was so stunning in his mature, 20-point, three-assist, defensively sound performance Sunday that the team awarded him a rare game ball.

“I was surprised,” the rookie said afterward. “I thought so many other guys played well. But it made me feel good. That ball’s in my locker right now.”

And of course in the middle of this team is Wallace, a skyscraper in a village. He had 12 rebounds, five blocked shots, five assists, two steals and enough air time to go into syndication. In the Pistons’ locker room, a New York Times reporter, unfamiliar with the “Fear The Fro” campaign that Wallace started last year, asked the following question:

“Do people fear the Fro now?”

Wallace squinted. “They should.”

Just ask McGrady. He thought this thing was over. But a series is four wins, and one guy can’t win them all for you — at least not a guy who suffered an identity crisis in the middle. McGrady started to waffle between superstar and super-assister, dishing off to less talented teammates. The Pistons figured him out and threw the cloak of defensive doom over him. Sunday, in the game that mattered most, he shot a miserable 7-for-24. He’s young. He’ll get smarter. That’s a worry.

But it’s next year’s worry now. As of this morning, the Pistons are thinking Philadelphia, whose superstar, Allen Iverson, will not fold, will not tire and will not make a young mistake like counting his rounds before they hatch.

Still, few who were there will forget Sunday, the final burst of applause, the players hugging, the long climb realized. It was hard. It was scary. It was historic.

And it’s over. The conference semifinals are set in stone, and there will be nothing Magic about them. The Pistons, now in the history books, made sure of that.

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).

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