PLAY ON!

CLEVELAND – Alive.

That’s all that matters, right? Breathing hard. Showing scars. But alive. Alive as in this choking playoff series, which is tied at 3-3. Alive as in the basketball itself, which, in the final two minutes of Friday night’s gut-wrenching game, was fought for and fought for by a group of guys who simply were not ready to go home for the summer.

Rasheed Wallace misses a shot? Ben Wallace soars to keep it alive.

Rasheed misses another shot? Tayshaun Prince soars to keep it alive.

Rasheed misses another shot? Rip Hamilton races in to keep it alive.

“It ain’t luck, it’s just fighting,” said a happy Hamilton, after the 84-82 squeaker, the third straight game decided by two points, but the first won by the Pistons.

“It’s just will,” added Chauncey Billups. “Knowing that anyone of those rebounds can cause us to go home. … We weren’t ready for that.”

Instead, on a night that was on the verge of sinking, the Pistons threw the ropes over their shoulders and pulled it back above water. There were no secrets here. They did it with effort they haven’t shown in the previous three losses. They did it by reducing the turnovers and upping the assists. They did it by throwing their bodies at everything – rebounds, the ball, even LeBron James.

And they did it with five offensive rebounds in the final two minutes, stabbing the heart of the roaring Cleveland crowd with each renewed possession.

“Like I said before, they’re trying to go down the road we’ve already been down, come back, and are trying to go down again,” Rasheed said. “The young fellow played good, but in that fourth quarter, we used our experience.”

And Game 7, Rasheed?

“The Palace is gonna be bananas, yo,” he said.

Alive.

A test of wills

Of course, before you get to Sunday’s Game 7, you had to survive Game 6. And let’s not kid ourselves. Until those amazing last two minutes, this was anybody’s game and anybody’s night. The Pistons made some familiar mistakes in the first half, letting too many Cavaliers get inside for easy baskets from LeBron passes. Cleveland raced to a quick 11-4 lead, and the Pistons, ironically, couldn’t buy an offensive rebound.

“We came out way too excited,” Billups said. “I was like a little kid coming through the door of Chuck E. Cheese. And when I’m too excited it trickles down. They got an early lead. But we settled down, and then it became tit for tat.”

It did indeed. The leads changed hands regularly in the second half – a point here, a point there. With less than four minutes left, Cleveland had the edge, 77-76.

But there is all you want to do and there is all you have done. And while Cleveland wanted to win, somewhere inside the collective soul of the Pistons, what they had done before rose to the surface. They had survived tests like these – with Miami, with New Jersey, with Orlando. They had gone on the road and pushed back a dragon.

And they began to do it again.

Billups, cold all night, came alive with a steal that led to a Prince lay-up and an incredible desperation shot into the very breath of defender Eric Snow. Rasheed hit an unlikely bank shot off glass. The defense – led by Ben Wallace – would not let the amazing LeBron come down the lane and go away with a basket. “Let him have free throws if he has to,”they seemed to say. “But he’s done scoring in this paint.”

Sure enough, James didn’t have a basket in the final 4:50.

“We tried to put more pressure on him, not let him get comfortable,” coach Flip Saunders said. “Just try and get different looks. When you’re playing someone in a rhythm, you have to do that.”

And now the rhythm has changed. What had been, until the final minutes Friday, a steadily increasing drumbeat of “YOUTH! YOUTH!” has suddenly slowed to the steadier thump of “Experience … experience … “

“It’s grimy season,” Hamilton said. “That’s what we did tonight. We got grimy.”

Alive.

And here comes Sunday.

Spring turns to grime

Now, if anyone thinks the hump is behind the Pistons, think again. This Cleveland team has nothing to lose. It has already won at the Palace. And, despite the euphoria the fans in Detroit feel this morning, remember the Cavs were one weird bounce from tying this game at the buzzer.

“That’s a great team we’re playing against, and they came here and beat us on our home court, so props to them,” said James, who had a dominant 32 points, but turned the ball over seven times, several in the closing minutes. “But this is behind us now.”

What lies ahead is Game 7. You are tempted to say the Pistons are better at these. You are tempted to say they just needed a victory to break their funk. You are temped to say there’s no way, at home, the Pistons can blow this.

But you were tempted to say “sweep” a week ago, weren’t you?

So let’s just say nothing. Let’s just take a breath, admit that this is a terrific series – even if it is bad for your health – and settle in to see who shows up Sunday.

It’s grimy season, as Rip puts it. Or as Rasheed said to a TV reporter when asked what’s going to happen on Sunday:

“Aw, man, you already know.”

Somebody want to tell us?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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