PISTONS KNEW THEY COULD COUNT ON ATKINS

The suit said it all. It was light charcoal gray, matched with black loafers and a knit shirt. A nice suit, really. But on the wrong man. Chauncey Billups was wearing it, and it was nearly game time, which meant two things: He wasn’t taking it off, and Chucky Atkins had just become the most important player on the floor.

Step in, step up. By now, everyone knows the story of a bench player rising to his opportunity. Normally, they call it “a star is born.” But when that bench player was last year’s starter, when he sat to make room for a new guy, and when he is asked, in a pivotal playoff game, to resume his old job, with Allen Iverson on the other side, he’s not being born, he’s being held over the fire.

But there was Atkins, replacing the injured Billups, handling the heat Wednesday night, directing the offense, dishing out assists, making steals, drawing fouls and heaving up long three-pointers with arcs that were high enough to sing a verse of “Ave Maria.”

And finally, at the most critical moment of this playoff war, with the Pistons down by one and less than three seconds left — and, let’s face it, if they lost this game, they were likely losing the series — here was Atkins again, taking the inbounds pass and driving the baseline and throwing up a rolling touch shot that hit the rim, hit the rim, hit the backboard and was falling through when Philadelphia’s Derrick Coleman poked it out through the net — goaltending!

Count it.

Count on him.

Stepping up.

Bad memories erased

“What were you thinking when you got that ball?” someone asked Atkins, after the Pistons survived this scare, 78-77, and took a 3-2 lead into Game 6 on Friday night.

“I was just praying it went in,” he said, laughing. “Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about making a huge play. I was just trying to get the ball and make up for a few mistakes I’d made earlier.”

He wasn’t alone. The Pistons came out like a blowtorch but faded like a doused campfire. Their 55 percent first-quarter shooting wound up at 39 percent for the night. You do the math.

And the rebounding was sad. Philly had twice as many offensive boards. Every Piston had a shot he regretted, or a pass that got away. Atkins himself had just a minute earlier thrown the ball into Aaron McKie’s palm, leading to an Iverson steal.

“I didn’t want that to be my last memory of the night,” Atkins said. “We survived this tonight. But this Philly team has been to the Finals. They know how to win. We have to put in a full 48-minute effort.”

Speaking of minutes, Atkins played 40 himself, scoring 17 and dishing five assists. This was important because in Game 4 Atkins was unable to get a rhythm to his game as Billups tried to test his ankle, playing 23 minutes. On Wednesday, getting minutes wasn’t a problem. Making them count was. Especially the last one. You almost wondered if anyone would take that last shot for Detroit. In these playoffs, and much of the season, it had been Billups as the go-to guy in the crucial moments. In these playoffs, and much of the season, Billups had been the Pistons’ go-to guy in the crucial moments.

On Wednesday, Atkins took over that role as well and got that goaltending basket with .9 left on the clock.

Isn’t it funny? The most important shot of his Pistons career never came through the net.

Now they need one for the road

Having said all that, does anyone not expect this series to go seven games? For one thing, the Sixers can’t keep shooting that badly. And Iverson, warrior that he is, likely won’t leave anything on the floor in Philly. If he misses 20 of 25 shots Friday, I’ll eat this newspaper. Besides, the Pistons are, let’s face it, a pretty bad playoff road team, save for the one big win in Orlando. And a suddenly healthy Billups seems about as likely as Barry Sanders’ singing the national anthem.

But if that’s what it is, then that’s what it is. There’s a reason the Pistons won 50 regular-season games, just as there was a reason they didn’t give up on Atkins when Billups joined the team.

“I knew when Chauncey couldn’t go, Chucky was ready to step in,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “Remember, he was our starting point guard last year on a team that went to the second round of the playoffs.”

And there he was again, leaping into the arms of his teammates for a shot that never went in but counted more than any that did. The starter wore the nicer clothes Wednesday — a grey suit, black loafers, knit shirt. But for one sweet moment, the backup wore the smile.

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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