EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — A few days from now, when the Pistons are packing for their summer vacations, this will be a night that will haunt them. Right now they have reasons, justifications, they have moments they can point to, cliches they can fall back on. And they have at least one more game to play.

But in a few days, when the reporters leave and the bright lights fade and the New Jersey Nets are playing in the NBA Finals, this will really sting, this hapless, hopeless performance Thursday night. Teams are measured not by games they lose, but by how they come back from those losses. The Pistons had lost two tough games in Detroit. Here is how they came back in Game 3: as an also-ran.

“Maybe if we’d come out and at least played hard, it wouldn’t have been so bad,” said Corliss Williamson, after the stunningly lackluster 97-85 defeat.
“But they were like up here and we were like . . . down here.”

Say thanks and so long. It’s as good as over, and it wasn’t very good. The Pistons spent most of this, their most crucial night of the playoffs, choking on the dust of the streaking Nets. Jason Kidd should have gotten five speeding tickets. His whole team was in overdrive. New Jersey is a state that is famous for its turnpike. I didn’t know it ran through the middle of the arena.

What exit do the Pistons get off? They have met their Waterloo. Their whole second half Thursday felt like garbage time. At one point, Williamson came hopping into the lane, realized he was about to travel and threw the ball away. And that was an average offensive play.

By the end, players were biting their lips and holding their heads in their hands. Tayshuan Prince looked as if he was going to cry. Michael Curry threw an arm around him for comfort.

And this was only Game 3!

“Did it feel as if you were playing at two different speeds?” Williamson was asked.

“Two different speeds, two different efforts, two different intensities,” he sighed.

Also-rans.

Kidd’s play again

“New Jersey is playing at an unbelievably high level,” Pistons coach Rick Carlisle said afterward. “I can’t say enough about them. They’re quick to the ball, their energy is great, I tip my hat to them. They’ve really done a great job.”

This is all true. But it’s what you say when a series is over — not when it’s still going on. When you hear a coach talking like that, it’s a red flag. Or more likely a white one.

Sure, you can say that New Jersey was unstoppable. Kenyon Martin had 14 points in the first quarter. Kidd started more fast breaks than a 3 o’clock school bell. He grabbed 12 rebounds — more than any Pistons besides Ben Wallace — and he scored 34 points, a career playoff high.

But giving the Nets all the credit is letting the Pistons off the hook. Even if you allow for the fact that Kidd is a phenomenal player, even if you overlook the fact that more than half of his points came on lay-ups, how do you explain how the Nets’ second unit rolled up the score on Detroit? How do you explain the miserable three shots made by Chauncey Billups, the meek four points scored by Prince, Mehmet Okur missing eight of nine shots, Chucky Atkins turning the ball over four times, or the Pistons getting blocked nine times and surrendering 44 points in the paint?

Sure the Nets ran roughshod over Detroit. But when you miss 60 percent of your shots you give them the opening. And when you don’t get back quickly enough, you let them close. The Nets had 32 fast-break points. One third of their total, and all they had to do was lay it up.

“It felt good to get out there and run,” Kidd said.

We’re glad he’s happy. But the Nets were faster than the Pistons at just about everything — breaks, rebounding, loose balls, finding open shots.

Also-rans.

Final chance at victory

Never mind that before the game, the Pistons had hit a personal jackpot by claiming the No. 2 pick in the upcoming draft. Some of the Pistons heard this and held up two fingers just before the game started.

Who knew they were predicting where they would finish?

“We’re not playing as a team,” Wallace said. “We played as a team to get here and we’re not doing that now.”

No they’re not. Defensively, they have no answer for Martin. They seem incapable of stopping a break (that’s effort as much a anything else). And their no-offense thing is truly brutal to watch. It’s not just that the Pistons aren’t shooting, they aren’t running any plays effectively. Everything seems telegraphed. Everything seems labored. They run the shot clock down to the danger zone. They get few offensive rebounds.

It’s as good as over. The Nets, to a player, acted as if they were on a mission. “What we talked about all season long,” their coach, Byron Scott, said, “was getting back to the finals and winning the championship.”

The Pistons will need to do that now. Their mantra next year will be to get back to the Eastern Conference finals and win them. You crawl before you walk.

But before we finish, a word about Game 4 on Saturday night. This is all the Pistons have left. Deep down, they know they cannot win this series. But perhaps they want to show that they can win a game. That would be something to build on. That would be something to achieve. They would at least avert the ignoble verdict of a sweep, which makes people think that maybe they shouldn’t be there, that another team would have fared better.

Forget how they treat the fans. Forget how they treat history. The Pistons should treat themselves better than that.

Because if they think it stings now, just wait.

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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