The lights came on. The lights went out. The lights came on again. And then, in the fourth quarter, the lights went out.
The first time was electrical. Something blew in the breakers and the Palace went dark. Then the second time was physical and emotional. Chauncey Billups, the Pistons’ offensive leader — having an excellent night, their leading scorer — went up for a jump shot and landed on the outstretched leg of defender Eric Snow. Billups could barely get up. He hobbled off the court, helped by his teammates. And with him went the most consistent offensive threat the Pistons had.
The question now was, how dark was it going to get?
Answer: lights up.
Showing a resolve that makes playoff winners, the Pistons took the challenge of Billups’ absence and turned the flame up a notch. Mehmet Okur, who is technically a rookie, waited patiently as the clock ticked away, then hammered home a three-pointer. Chucky Atkins, in for Billups, drove through the Philly defense and laid it in. A fast break saw Atkins go to Ben Wallace, who tipped it to Okur for a rousing slam.
And somehow, some way, with the guy who usually is their crunch-time player sitting on the bench with his head in a towel, the Pistons beat the Sixers to claim something that hasn’t been seen in this town in a while — a 1-0 lead in a playoff series.
“We told ourselves we wanted to win this game and see what it was like to play from the front for a change,” Wallace said after the 98-87 victory.
Determination pays off
Everything you heard about this series? Throw out the scripts. Tuesday was supposed to be a game in which Detroit would be baffled by Philly’s little man, Allen Iverson, and Philly would be banged around by Wallace, the Pistons’ human clock tower. Didn’t work that way.
Maybe it was the lights. But at one point in this thing, Philly was putting two men on Billups. And Detroit was watching Derrick Coleman rack up points
(21) and rebounds (eight). Iverson was a presence but not the difference. And Wallace was on the bench with foul trouble.
Now, admittedly, Iverson, who finished with 27 points, is an amazing player to watch. He scoots away from defenders the way a bumblebee escapes a swatting hand. When he passes the ball, almost before it leaves his hands he is moving, and it is in those split seconds — when the defender is looking, naturally, at the ball — that Iverson creates the openings he needs. He keeps just enough distance between him and the defender to leave his options open, zipping past or throwing up a dagger of a shot. There is no one better at creating space for his shot — not in the league, maybe not in the world.
But in the fourth quarter — as with much of Tuesday night — Iverson was merely mortal. He missed some long jumpers that could have turned the tide. His drives, magical as they are, were limited to only an occasional flash, and the damage he did was manageable.
Meanwhile, the Pistons were simply determined. They drew off the energy of a charged-up crowd, squeezed Philly defensively, got just enough offense and made just enough free throws to straight-arm a victory.
It was the kind of win Rick Carlisle and Joe Dumars are proud of. Everybody doing something. Giving it up for the team. This was personified not only by the obvious, like Atkins’ fine sub job in place of Billups, and Okur’s huge performance — 7-for-7, 16 points, six rebounds — but also by the less obvious, like Corliss Williamson, who barely took off his sweats in the second half of the Orlando series, coming in cold in the second quarter and hitting three straight shots to keep the lead in the 10-point range.
It is guys like the quiet Williamson, who could have moaned and whined about sitting unused — after being the go-to guy last season — who make this team a force to be reckoned with.
“Every night we think somebody is going to step up for us,” Atkins said. “In Game 2, hopefully, it’ll happen again.”
A team effort
Having said that, let’s be honest. This team is only as good as the sum of its parts, and Billups is a big part. A huge part. All night Tuesday he hit huge three-pointers, and he controlled the tempo and directed the offense. Even though he left injured, he finished with 24 points, one behind Richard Hamilton as the leading Detroit scorers.
“He’s a veteran, hopefully he’ll be back for the next game,” Hamilton said of Billups. The early prognosis was an ankle sprain. That means maybe Thursday, maybe next week.
In the meantime, the Pistons are going to find out a lot about themselves. It says something that Okur had a big night when Wallace did not, that Tayshaun Prince seems to be more than a one-series wonder, and that Atkins is more than willing to step into the point-guard controls should Billups be gone.
But time will tell. Slowing Iverson will continue to be a challenge. For this night, it was met. The Pistons will hope to repeat that. On the other hand, that light thing?
Once was enough.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).