ROLL ON, PISTONS!76ERS OUSTED; EASTERN FINALS START SUNDAY

PHILADELPHIA — Ticking, ticking, the clock was ticking, and Chauncey Billups, sweat dripping from his forehead, had finally found something else to think about besides his injured left ankle: winning the series.

Ticking, ticking, looking, setting, launching, watching, and finally, finally, smiling, as the ball swished through the net and the air went out of the building and Billups, along with Pistons fans everywhere, exhaled with a long collective breath.

Thru. Through. Whew.

It took more than three hours and it felt like a month, but after a terrible start, a wicked middle and an overtime that was the epitome of the words
“second wind,” the Pistons are done with the Philadelphia 76ers, done with Allen Iverson, and onto a place they haven’t been since they were the defending champions of the NBA: the Eastern Conference finals.

“We never stopped believing,” said Billups, after the Pistons’ 93-89 comeback victory that wrapped up this series, four games to two. “Even games that look out of reach, we always feel we can come back.”

Philly’s thru.

The Pistons are through.

Everybody: Whew!

This was, let’s face it, an exhausting, exasperating and at times exhilarating series. It featured terrible shooting but marvelous defense, terrible decisions but marvelous instincts, terrible individual performances but wonderful individual moments. It featured a miraculous one-man offense in Iverson, who scored six straight in overtime, 38 for the night, and who almost beat the Pistons by himself.

But in the end, it came back to the beginning, with Billups, who was the scoring star of Game 1 before injuring the ankle and all but disappearing until Friday night, again hitting huge three-pointers — three in the OT — including the killer with 15 seconds left in the game.

“When we went into overtime I just told them, ‘I am about to take this game over,’ ” Billups said. “And they were like, ‘All right.’ “

So I guess the ankle is OK.

Thru. Through. Whew.

Some very good signs

First things first. Hats off to this squad. Not many of us thought the Pistons would win this game. Most expected a return to the Palace and the comforts of home for a Game 7. But the Pistons did what they had to do. They won in six. That makes two series in a row that Detroit, with an awful playoff road record, won the game it had to win — on the road. That bodes well for the future.

And hats off here to Billups, who was what they called “a game-time decision.” You wonder whose head we’d have to cut off if the decision had been to keep him sitting. Billups started gingerly, but got stronger as the night went on. He finished with 28 points despite missing most of his shots. That’s because every one he did make was a killer, and five of his six baskets were three-pointers.

“His ability to rise up and hit long-range shots has been a big key for us,” coach Rick Carlisle said afterward.

No kidding. With Billups hitting like that, anything seems possible. With Tayshaun Prince getting better every minute, anything seems possible. With Ben Wallace pulling down 18 rebounds — and on this night, he was really PULLING them down — anything seems possible. Consider this: The Pistons won this game, on the road, against Iverson, while shooting 34 percent.

I guess this defense stuff really works, huh?

“We’re a group where you have to sometimes wait, stay ready, wait, stay ready,” said Corliss Williamson, who did exactly that, exploding with his best night of the series Friday, scoring 17 points and drawing all kinds of fouls.
“But we’re improving. Last year, we made it to the second round, and that was the first time for a lot of us. Now we’re in the conference finals, and this’ll be the first time for a lot of us. This is a special team.”

The team moves on.

Bring on the Nets

And now it’s hello, New Jersey. The Eastern Conference finals, for the first time since 1991. Under the direction of Carlisle and the construction of Joe Dumars, the Pistons are clawing back to their glory days with a whole different look. They get no rest here. The series starts Sunday afternoon, at the Palace, against the Nets, who swept their second-round series and have been sitting in whirlpools waiting for an opponent. The Pistons, truth be told, are glad to be playing New Jersey as opposed to the Boston Celtics. Detroit likes its matchups with Jersey. At the very least, the Nets don’t have Iverson.

(By the way, Iverson had a remarkable game Friday night. There were plays in which he single-handedly went through four of the five Pistons on the floor. In the end, he couldn’t do it all by himself. But, man, he sure tried.)

But that’s over now. The Pistons are continuing the grand experiment, seeing if you can get to an NBA championship without the typical superstar. They are halfway to a crown now, and playing more like a unit than ever. There were times when they looked like a fishing net on defense, trapping anything that swam in, frustrating Sixers as they twisted to get free.

“I can’t say enough about our team and how they did what they had to do,” Carlisle said. “Everyone has been instrumental. Chucky Atkins stepping up in the absence of Chauncey. Tayshaun stepping up the way he did. Corliss tonight being a difference maker. . . .”

And on they go. It was tough, it was physical, it was sticky, gooey, bloody, messy, ugly and devoid, at times, of anything that resembled offense. But the Pistons delivered the goods when they most had to, twice in overtime, once on the road. And here’s where they are this morning: one of the last four teams still standing in the best basketball league in the world.

Thru. Through. Whew.

Hard to believe, but hockey seems a long way away, doesn’t it?

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). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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