In the end, they were counting down the seconds to the next game. Six. Five. Four. Mehmet Okur, with nothing else to do, threw the ball at the basket.

It swished.

It was that kind of night.

So it’s May Day instead of “Mayday!” Thanks to a 31-point blowout — final score 98-67 — there will be a Game 6 in this first-round playoff series. Basketball lives in the Motor City. But while the Pistons gave the Palace fans lots to roar about in Wednesday night’s survival — and when Ben Wallace blocks a Shawn Kemp shot into the stands, you’re gonna hear a roar — the truth is, they didn’t answer many questions with their win.

They did, however, raise a few.

First question: Was this about survival or identity? The Pistons played intense, jaw-grinding basketball from the opening tap, with three slams in the first period by Wallace, aggressive shooting by Rip Hamilton, and stick-to-em defense by both starters and subs. But was the motivation to avoid an embarrassing playoff exit at home, or was this really who the Pistons are — and can be in Games 6 and 7?

“I’d say this was about pride,” Chauncey Billups said after the win. “We worked too hard all season to be a No. 1 seed that loses to a No. 8 seed in five games. No way. We weren’t gonna let that happen.”

Second question: Was this Orlando’s “A” game, or was the Magic cruising on a cushy lead? Orlando missed an awful lot of open looks. Drew Gooden played like a rookie. The entire squad was subs by the end of the third quarter. And the Tracy McGrady of Game 5 sure didn’t look like the Tracy McGrady of Games 1 through 4. As he goes, so goes Orlando, and, let’s face it, there were times Wednesday night when T-Mac looked like T-O, as in Time Off.

“I think he tried to get the other guys involved too much,” Orlando coach Doc Rivers said. “Detroit was more aggressive tonight. It’s funny, in our shoot- around we were so focused. Then the game started and boom — it was over.”

Third question: Is Tayshaun Prince an answer or an accident? Prince entered the game early, after Michael Curry got his third foul in less than nine minutes. Prince, the Kentucky rookie with the body of a pogo stick and the wing span of a 747, didn’t so much stop McGrady as ooze on him. But T-Mac didn’t score much with Prince defending him, and Prince provided some springy offense as well. He was a crowd pleaser and a welcome new force.

“I didn’t have a clue I would be playing tonight,” Prince said, after logging 33 minutes.

Friday will tell if he’s a weapon that can be reloaded.

Can more changes work?

Fourth question: Has Rick Carlisle finally made some significant adjustments, and can he do it two more times? The knock on the Pistons’ coach was that he seemed to be coming in with the same game plan, loss after loss, rather than make the chessboard maneuvers more common in the postseason.

But Wednesday, Carlisle stayed with Prince a long time, kept Corliss Williamson on the bench, changed little things like the in-bounding pattern, and had an offense much more fluid than in previous games. This time, the other players didn’t stand around while Billups tried to get breathing room. Hamilton was more aggressive in finding his shot, getting into the lane and popping quickly for six- and eight-footers.

Was this newfound flexibility by Carlisle? Or was it simply the old Pistons way of doing things — but doing them effectively? Carlisle said, “When we play good defense, our offense comes easier.” It sure didn’t hurt that the Pistons hit 43.8 percent from the field — their best in the series — while holding Orlando to 32 percent, and McGrady to 19 points.

Doesn’t McGrady start every game with 19 points?

Fresh Prince inspires

Back to Prince for a moment. He was the story of the night, if only for the fresh look he brought the Pistons. He had youthful exuberance, string bean moves, and some inspirational moments. He stretched to save an out-of-bounds ball and scooped it underhand 20 feet to a teammate. He took a lob over the head of a defender, turned and laid it in. He took a nice feed and banged in a three. He finished with 15 points, six rebounds, and, at least for one night, a draw with McGrady.

“The way he was playing,” Carlisle admitted, “it was hard to take him out.”

At the final buzzer, Prince was shaking a fist. Wallace was nodding. Jon Barry was yelling, “Yeah! Yeah!” And the team exited to a hopeful ovation that said:
“Thanks. Make sure you come back Sunday.”

We’ll soon see. The Pistons, as Billups said, showed pride in this game — pride, determination, focus, good defense. But these are things they should be showing all along. This is the result you’re supposed to have when a No. 1 seed plays a No. 8 at home.

Now they have to do it again. Friday night will be a much tougher test. The Pistons haven’t won a postseason road game since Carlisle took over as coach. But that’s Friday. For now, it’s May Day not “Mayday!” and we take solace in a playoff victory — a rare thing so far this Detroit spring. We’re also grateful that at least one query Wednesday got an earnest reply.

Question: Do we have to start watching baseball?

Answer: Not yet.

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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