After a while, you have seen all the games. The ones where you fall behind early, the ones where you blow them out, the ones where it seems you couldn’t hit a basket if they put it at your knees. And deep down, if you are champions, you know the difference, even if the worried fans do not. This is the difference: You know the ones you can win, and you know when it’s time to win them. It was time Tuesday night at the Palace. The Knicks were on the altar, their necks bare and vulnerable. It was the playoffs. It was the fourth quarter.

It was time.

So the Pistons slapped themselves, toweled off the lethargy that had dragged them in the early part of the game, and did what champions do. Find the ball, no matter where it is, make it yours, and put it in. John Salley found it in Patrick Ewing’s hands and stuffed it away, fell to the floor, and still poked it out for a fast break. Mark Aguirre found it with one man to beat and spun to the basket and dropped in a banker. Vinnie Johnson — he’s a guard, isn’t he? — found it coming off glass and rose in the lane, Land Of The Giants, and grabbed it anyhow and put it in, two points, big lead.

Winning time.

“I was yelling at them at halftime saying, ‘OK, we’re going back to New York, is that what you want? Another plane trip, more of that hotel food?’ ” said Chuck Daly, after his team rallied from a lousy start and captured Game 5 and the Eastern Conference semifinals, 95-84. No need to lecture, really, coach. Deep down, this Detroit team knew there would be no plane trip. The Pistons looked at the New York Knicks and saw a group that really wasn’t ready to go further. The Knicks were tired. They were out of miracles. And the second half followed the script perfectly. Detroit played as though it had an appointment with destiny. New York played as though it had an appointment with the dentist. Wearing down Ewing

“How happy are you that you won’t have to see Patrick Ewing anymore?” someone asked John Salley in the subdued but victorious Pistons’ locker room.

“WHEW!” he yelled, breaking into a smile. “I told Charles Oakley he could stay at my house if he wanted to watch the next round. I didn’t ask Patrick, because with all his money, he could buy the house next to me if he wanted to watch the next round.”

Don’t count on it. Ewing has had enough of Detroit, especially after Tuesday, when he scored just 22 points on 7- for-23 shooting. The Pistons’ defense wore him down almost as much as playing five games in seven days. Stu Jackson used Ewing for every minute of the first three quarters Tuesday. By the fourth, Ewing was exhausted. He took baby steps up the court. At one point, he fouled Isiah Thomas meekly as Thomas drove the lane, then simply shrugged when the referee pointed at him. The Pistons had weathered Ewing’s storm the best way a team can: Fire back with a lot of weapons.

Did we say a lot? Geez. It’s like a lottery with these guys — you never know whose number is going to come up. Mark Aguirre shoots out the lights? He leads the team with 25 points? Aguirre? I know he’s a good player. But beforeTuesday, Mark’s best moment in this series might have been shaking off Chuck Daly’s suggestion that he go into the game Thursday night, whispering instead, “Dennis is playing great. Leave him in.”

But that’s why the Pistons kill you. Aguirre sits quiet for the first four games, averages less than 19 minutes and only nine points, then scorches the Knicks, who were left wondering, “Where did this guy come from?” He was throwing them in from long range. From under the basket. From just before the buzzer. He also played good defense and grabbed — are you ready? — eight rebounds.

“We win as a team,” he said, “and when you get hot on this team, the ball keeps coming to you.”

Winning time. No superstition or panic And on go the Pistons, to the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth year in a row. We should realize how unique this group is, all arms and legs and swarming defense, not really caring who gets the basket. “They can score 80 points and beat you convincingly,” said New York’s Kenny Walker. That’s high praise.

And you know the best part? Their attitude. Before the game, I came into the locker room and James Edwards was throwing away his sneakers, the magic sneakers, the ones he had worn when this series began. Before the game? When many players on a winning streak wouldn’t dare change anything?

“Too loose,” Edwards said, nonchalantly. “I don’t like ’em when they’re too loose.”

“But those are historic,” I protested. “You set your career playoff high in those sneakers. You’ve outdueled Ewing in those sneakers.”

“Well, I’ll have to get another pair,” he said, laughing, without looking up. “I’m not superstitious like that.”

He signed the old shoes, handed them to the ballboy, and broke open a new box.

A few hours later, as the fourth quarter ticked away, Edwards leaped, in his new shoes, and stuffed Ewing. And I bet it never occurred to him. When you think like a champion, it is only the sum that matters, not the parts.

Can anyone stop these guys?

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