MILWAUKEE 92, DEROIT 88

The whistle blew — offensive foul! — and Richard Hamilton, in disgust, tore away his plastic mask. This is not why they call him “Rip.” He threw the mask across the floor. Shreek! Another whistle. Technical foul to go with his sixth foul. And then, for good measure, the refs threw him out altogether. He left muttering angry warnings to the Bucks on the floor, who nodded as if to say,
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. You’re gone. We’re still here. And we’re gonna win the game.”

Adding insult to larceny.

Never mind the last-minute comeback. Never mind that the Pistons made the score close — even had a chance to win it at the end. The fact is, the Bucks stole this game, they stole the momentum and they stole home-court advantage. The final Pistons’ chance disappeared when Rasheed Wallace took a pass from Lindsey Hunter and somehow lost the handle, the ball flying off into the stands as if on a bungee cord.

Insult to larceny. This is why I wish the NBA would schedule playoff games every other night. That way, the Pistons wouldn’t have time to bask in the false glow of rave reviews and start believing — after one game — that the fate of this series is as pre-packaged as an Adam Sandler movie.

“Too much time,” Chauncey Billups sighed after the loss. “We had it so easy on Sunday, we came in here like, even if we’re losing by eight points at halftime, we’ll be fine.”

You can hardly blame them for overconfidence. Detroit was all but handed this series by the fans and media after a defensive blowout in Game 1. With three and a half days of broadcast and print analysis, you were wondering by tip-off why the Bucks even bothered to show up. They got away from their game. They missed too many shots. They were outrebounded and outhustled. And their bench was no match.

Well, in case nobody noticed, they don’t keep a cumulative score. Every night is a washed blackboard. And the chalk on Wednesday had the Pistons committing the same fatal flaws as the Bucks did on Sunday: losing sight of their game, getting outrebounded, outhustled — and, oh yeah, missing their shots. The Pistons scraped a lot of paint off the rim with the balls they rubbed against it or rattled on top of it.

And their bench, with three minutes left in the contest, still hadn’t scored a point.

“All the things we won in Game 1, we got beat here,” Pistons coach Larry Brown said after the 92-88 defeat. “I was just disappointed in our execution.”

Insult to larceny.

Beaten at their own game

With the loss, the Pistons became the first team in this year’s playoffs to drop a home game. Now it’s OK to lose a playoff game. It’s never OK to lose at home. You do that, you are giving away almost a game and a half — the one you lost plus the advantage you blew. You have to work that much harder on the road to get it back.

What hurt in this game is that the Pistons were outdone in their wheelhouse. First of all, this team should not get outrebounded. No way. Not with two Wallaces patrolling the paint.

Instead, the Bucks won the boards, 48-37. Big Ben Wallace had 11 rebounds, which is almost an off night for him. In fact, 11 rebounds was — and this is hard to take — two less than former-Piston Joe Smith had.

Ouch.

Second thing: Where did the inside game go? The Pistons, since acquiring Rasheed Wallace, have been a terrific inside-out team. They can score in the post. So why didn’t they play that way?

“We took 25 three-point shots” and made six, Brown lamented. “When you take 25 three-pointers against a team that can’t handle your pressure, you take away your pressure — and that gave them opportunities to get long rebounds. . . .

“Ben never touched the ball. He doesn’t have to score. But he has to touch the ball.”

Double ouch.

Want more? The starting guards both fouled out. Mehmet Okur continued his disappearing act. And we don’t even want to touch the rest of the bench. But we have to.

This Pistons team should also not be outperformed by another team’s reserves. Isn’t depth the Pistons strength? But Corliss Williamson, after a huge day in Game 1, had no points in five shots Wednesday. Lindsey Hunter didn’t score until it was too late. Mike James was largely absent.

Put it this way. Toni Kukoc had more points by himself (15) than the Pistons reserves had combined.

And I thought Kukoc had retired.

Too little, too late

Now there will be some who are impressed with the Pistons’ late comeback Wednesday. A different bounce here, a rebound there and the Pistons might have stolen this game back before the final buzzer.

But that’s like being proud of the fact that, after blowing 90 easy questions on a test, you get a few hard ones right. As Brown said, “It shouldn’t have to come down to the last shot.”

Sure, you expected the Bucks to come out better than they did Sunday. So you don’t have a blowout, you have a closer game, but the Pistons should still prevail at home, keeping their hands on the opponent’s throat — the way every other home team has done in the postseason.

Instead, they allow the Bucks to breathe, perhaps even to smile.

“Now we have to go there,” Williamson said. “This team has been through it before. We won’t be looking to win one. We’ll be looking to win both.”

They have to play that way, not just talk it. And on Saturday, they have to hope Milwaukee falls victim to a slump of confidence and the Pistons can commit some larceny of their own.

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). He will sign copies of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” on May 1 at 11 a.m. at The Open Book, 118 S. Front, Fremont, Ohio, and at 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 4940 Monroe, Toledo.

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