THE COLD, HARD FACT: ALL EYES ARE ON STACK

You wouldn’t want to be Jerry Stackhouse today. As the tip-off nears for what might be the Pistons’ last game of the season — and perhaps the defining night of Stackhouse’s career — the minutes will feel like hours and the hours like days.

He has never been on a team with this good a shot at the NBA Finals, and he has never been so backed against the wall. The Pistons have gone from stifling to stifled, losers of three straight to the Celtics in their best-of-seven series.

On top of that, when Stackhouse flew home Sunday night after Game 4, he got a phone call saying his mother, in North Carolina, had been hospitalized with chest pains. Earlier in the day, he had written a Mother’s Day poem for her that ran in the local newspaper. She had called him, happy and proud.

Now she was in a hospital bed.

“Sort of puts Game 4 in perspective, huh?” Stackhouse said Monday.

And perspective is in short supply during the playoffs. Which is why, fairly or unfairly, all eyes will be on Stackhouse tonight. No matter how much fans talk about a team game and a team effort, when things get crunchy, they look for a star.

Stackhouse wears the cape. And considering he’s a free agent after next season, a good deal of his perception around the NBA and his future money may hinge on how well he steps up tonight.

After all, Kobe Bryant has stepped up for the Lakers. Jason Kidd has stepped up for the Nets. Even in this series, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker have stepped up for the Celtics — at least when it mattered.

So you wouldn’t want to be Stackhouse today, because in many ways, he’s in a can’t-win position. Even if he delivers a game that pushes the Pistons to victory, he has to do it again in Game 6 and again in Game 7.

And if he does, they’ll say he was supposed to.

And if he doesn’t, they’ll say he couldn’t.

Playing a team game

“I can take it,” Stackhouse said. “That’s the beauty and the downside of pressure.”

He may be only 27, but Stackhouse has a sense of irony. After all, it was just last season that he was the Detroit’s only real offensive weapon. He shot so much, his arms got a 10,000-mile tune-up.

This year, under Rick Carlisle, Stackhouse has given up points for passes, and shots for success. He has been hailed for that unselfishness.

But now the Pistons are shooting more blanks than a penny arcade, scoring 64 points and 79 points their last two games. The cry is “More offense! Somebody score!”

And whom do you think they’re looking at first?

“Hey, I would love to be in last year’s system right now,” said Stackhouse, who had 57 points by himself in a game last spring. “But we can’t abandon what we’ve been doing all year.

“I’m not gonna say, ‘The hell with it, I’m not running this play, I’m gonna go get my shot.’ I can’t do that. So I’ll catch the ball, we’ll do the pick and roll, or try and create situations on the weak side.

“But what bothers me is that people see that and say I’m not being aggressive. Come on.”

Another opportunity

Stackhouse is like a jazz soloist in a bar mitzvah band. They’re not doing the free-form stuff this gig. But inside him, there is a longing to take over — as there is in every scorer in the NBA.

Still, the heat is more intense on Stackhouse than anyone this side of Tim Duncan. Stackhouse already had one chance at a must-win performance; Game 5 in the first round against Toronto.

It was not one for the Jerry scrapbook.

He went 1-for-10. The Pistons won despite that. It was bittersweet for Stackhouse. Now comes another chance.

“It’s all that talk again, ‘Is Jerry Stackhouse really a superstar player?’ ” he said. “But you know, if we win the next three games, it’s gonna be how well the team played. And if we lose, it’s gonna be ‘Stack loses.’

Price you pay. On Sunday, at the end of the first half, the Celtics got a buzzer-beating three-pointer, and Stackhouse yelled at teammate Damon Jones for his defense. The cameras caught that, and by Monday, reporters were talking about dissension in Detroit.

“I was wrong for that,” Stackhouse said. But it only verified the spotlight. He may not be the Pistons’ only weapon tonight, but all eyes will rest on him
— along with the pressure, his reputation, and worries about an older woman in a hospital bed.

Let’s be honest. Defeat is more likely than victory, but if he somehow pulls it off, Stackhouse will have done the hardest thing an athlete can do: find something inside that takes you where you haven’t been before.

In that case, you wouldn’t want to be Jerry Stackhouse today.

But you might tomorrow.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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