That was no accident, folks. That last desperate play of Sunday’s Game 1, in which the Pistons tried an alley-oop pass with 1.4 seconds left — a damn hard thing to do, even with veterans — was drawn up to go from Tayshaun Prince to Mehmet Okur.

Rookie to rookie.

And it almost worked.

“Yeah,” Rick Carlisle said Monday, when I asked whether he realized he’d put the game in the hands of two players who had yet to see their 24th birthdays.
“That was what we called. I’m not interested in how old they are at that point. I’m looking for who can get the job done.”

Which is not the sentence some critics expect from Carlisle. He likes veterans. He doesn’t hide it. He makes rookies earn their places. But the Pistons have become a strange stew in recent weeks. The old and young are melding. The minutes are bubbling into different pots.

Usually, in the playoffs, you’re taking what you did in the regular season and riding it every game. But as Carlisle admitted Monday, “We’ve changed our lineups more in the last three weeks than we did the last two years.”

Some say, why?

Some say it’s about time.

Those wily veterans

Remember, this is a team that starts its two oldest regular players, Cliff Robinson, 36, and Michael Curry, 34. Curry is a defensive specialist who rarely takes a shot. Robinson is a veteran whose numbers have plummeted in the playoffs. He’s shooting 32 percent, missing nearly half his free throws, and grabbing only three rebounds a game.

Because of that — and because of the flashy heroics of Prince and Okur — fans ask why Carlisle doesn’t switch his starters. Go with the kids. Ride a young herd.

“Well,” Carlisle said, thinking it over, “that’s just not what we’re doing right now. This lineup has gotten us off to a lot more good starts than bad ones.”

And, as the adage goes, it’s not who starts but who finishes that matters. More and more often, it’s Prince and Okur closing the show they currently don’t open.

Now, understand, Carlisle is in an unenviable position here. While most people say “go with the hot hand,” Carlisle has to balance a tenuous set of weights: the team’s personality, the team’s chemistry and the team’s direction.

The fact is, if you benched Robinson and Curry, they likely would be less effective. Taking guys in their mid-30s, having them warm up, then sit for 20 minutes, then expecting them to leap in and provide a lift off the bench, is expecting something that won’t happen.

Besides, while Curry and Robinson are not much in the points department, defense is still what defines this team. It sets the tone. And if Robinson and Curry can keep the other team’s starters from getting points early, it establishes the game the Pistons want to play.

On the other hand, aren’t Okur and Prince getting better defensively? And both of them can score.

“Honestly, with Memo and Tayshaun,” Carlisle said, “I look at it as having two extra starters. They may be subs, but they’re playing starters’ minutes.”

The surprising rookies

The truth is, Prince’s success caught Carlisle off-guard — almost as much as it caught the rest of us. The coach knew the kid was good. He didn’t know he was this good this fast. Remember, Prince didn’t play in half the regular-season games, and when he did play, he averaged only 10 minutes, three shots and three points.

And to a certain degree, Prince’s being a late rabbit from the hat has helped the Pistons. Other teams didn’t know what to expect. Orlando certainly didn’t until it was too late. Philadelphia didn’t figure he’d be the go-to guy in overtime.

On Sunday, you saw the Nets double-team Prince several times, and pester him into his worst performance in a while. Maybe that would have happened more if teams had seen him coming.

On the other hand, now that Prince has emerged, Carlisle looks vulnerable for holding him back.

“Could he have played more during the year?” Carlisle said. “Yeah, sure. He could have. Has it hindered him that he didn’t? I don’t know.”

Doesn’t matter. It’s in the past now. The future of this team, quite clearly, is a starting lineup of Prince, Okur, Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups. Whether it happens next fall or tonight matters less than who’s out there when the game is hanging in the balance.

On Sunday, it was rookie to rookie — to the surprise of almost no one. People are growing up fast around this team, and not just the players.

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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