PISTONS WIN GAME, IVERSON’S RESPECT

On a night when LeBron James sat near the Detroit bench – two earrings, one pair of shades, one shirttail hanging from his sweater – and Chuck Daly sat a few feet away – one blazer, one silk necktie, one full head of hair – you could argue that the Pistons were surrounded by the future and the past. But this night was about the present. And the present was tense.

Any game that starts with two missed dunks by the same player – Rasheed Wallace, clunking ’em two-handed and one-handed – might give the superstitious a pause. And any game that goes into the fourth quarter with the home team trailing is not easy on the stomach.

But it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish the other team off. And slowly the group weight of the Pistons smothered the singular brilliance of Philly’s Allen Iverson, and a small lead was taken, and a small lead got bigger, and Rip Hamilton came alive – a jumper, a jumper, a lay-up, a jumper – and soon it was ThunderStix and rock music and a blaring horn and a ticket to the conference semifinals.

“Fourth quarter, that’s our quarter,” Hamilton said after the 88-78 win. “We knocked ’em down.”

Both the shots and, in the end, the 76ers. Iverson, who scored as many points as his four other starters combined, was finished for yet another season, another 34-point, seven-assist night in the book that read “Losing Team.”

Seconds after the game ended, the smallest player on the floor – and without a doubt the most dazzling – came jogging into the interview area and began talking, eager to get his good-byes over with.

And then someone asked him about the Pistons. And he began to gush.

‘All they care about is winning’

“They are obviously the best team I’ve played against all season,” Iverson said. “You can say that about teams with a great offense or a great defense – but they have both. They have five guys on the basketball court, and you can’t double nobody. …

“I think they’re one of the best-coached teams, and it shows. … Everybody on that team knows their role. They don’t care who gets to shine, they don’t care who gets the glory, who gets the shots, who gets the points, who makes the All-Star team.

“All they care about is winning. …

“I just feel good going into a war against those guys and coming out of that war beat up. …

“You play against a team like that, and they put you through hell. You have to have a lot of for respect for them. …

“They’re the team I’ll be cheering for.”

Now that’s a compliment. A soldier who is grateful to be wounded by your sword.

The compliment deserves to be returned.

But now comes the hard part

So let’s say this for Iverson, who fought to the last breath Tuesday night. He never stops. He never tires. He isn’t the most deadly shooter of his generation, but that is the only thing keeping him from a 40-points-a-game average. He can get past anything big and anything small, he can angle his body from 38 degrees and 39 degrees and show you the difference. He can bank from the side, he can bank from the middle, he can bank from mid-air, and he can find more new openings than Starbucks. You can’t take your eyes off of him, but you can’t get your body with him, and because he can pull a defender toward him but rarely on top of him, he creates space for his teammates to take passes and ram them home.

He’s also as resilient as Maytag.

He is a one-man wrecking crew, but the underbelly is the “one-man” part, and when he tires or misfires, there is not too much more to the 76ers. The Pistons are not likely to face a single small-man threat like him the rest of the way, but they will face better teams, and shutting one man down won’t win them those games.

“I don’t know if there’s anybody like Allen,” Larry Brown said after the game. “The way he competes, it really prepares you for playoff series because you understand there are great players in the playoffs, and great players step up.”

Right. And so the Pistons can learn one final lesson from Iverson. They won the night and they won the series, but they have to ratchet it up. They have to find some better production from the bench because there will be nights when one starter will be in foul trouble and one may be hurt and the others may simply be off their games. They have to keep the defensive intensity up from the start because taking the first half off against a better team than Philly will leave them in a double-digit hole.

The Pistons played well enough to win this series, but they did not play their best basketball. This level will win games but not a championship. And they – and their coach – know it.

“We’ve got some things to work on,” Brown said.

But for now they move ahead, cheered on by the smallest warrior with a heart the size of a backboard. It says something that we’ll miss seeing Iverson play, but you take your lessons and you keep marching. The land mine of the first round has been survived. Next game, who knows? Next opponent? Still have to wait.

Meanwhile, let’s hope LeBron enjoyed his recruiting trip. Maybe he’ll decide to come to school here.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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