THERE’S A RING TO IT

Monday afternoon in Miami, a few hours before Game 7, a story began circulating about several Pistons players and, of all things, their late-night partying. According to the Miami Herald, a TV reporter and a cameraman were tipped off that Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince and Antonio McDyess had arrived at a South Beach nightclub at 2 a.m. Two a.m.! Before Game 7! Can you imagine!

Well, yeah, I can. And yeah, who cares? Last I looked they were adults. Last I looked the game didn’t start until 8 o’clock that night. Last I looked the TV “report” admitted they weren’t drinking. And last I looked, the last thing you have to worry about with the Detroit Pistons is whether they are where they are supposed to be.

In fact, as the Pistons were scheduled to fly to San Antonio on Tuesday night, champions of the Eastern Conference, ready for the final challenge of the season, the thought came that, despite the bumpy road from last summer to this one, replete with fights in the stands, head coach rumors and yet another Shaq-attack, the Pistons are exactly where they are supposed to be.

Back in the Finals.

Where else?

“We definitely did it the hardest way possible,” Prince said, sitting by his locker Monday night. “But for the most part I think that’s how we do things. We get in a dogfight, we let the other team get the edge, then we go out hard and play Detroit basketball.”

By the way, Prince only had 1) the first Detroit basket of the game, 2) a flying slam for the first Detroit lead, 3) a crucial steal with two minutes left in the game, 4) the final rebound of the game, 5) the final points of the game

So, obviously, that partying did him in.

A team without monster egos

But that’s what you get for trying to pigeon hole this team. The Pistons do not do things the conventional way. Heck, they were forged in the fires of the unconventional. Joe Dumars decided early on not to build a team around one star player, not to give $30 million annually to a Shaquille O’Neal, or to build a roster of big egos and small egos and hope they got along.

Instead, he found castoffs and tough guys and character guys and family guys, and he stirred them together until the stew became a puree, all parts melded into one.

“We just have so much confidence in each other,” Billups said Monday night, dressed in a suit for plane trip home. “I know if I’m not hitting, somebody else will be; if my dribble isn’t rolling, somebody else’s will. …

“I thought our balance is what inevitably hurt (Miami) and beat them. We got so many big nights from so many different guys. You can’t really make your defense to stop Rip or Rasheed or Tayshaun. … We change on the fly so much, it’s tough.”

By the way, Billups in Game 7 only had 1) a first-half three-pointer to silence the crowd, 2) a late three-pointer to tie the game with five minutes left, 3) a defensive effort that held Damon Jones to no baskets, 4) four straight three throws to ice the game in the final seconds, 4) 18 points and four rebounds on the night, not to mention an 8-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

So that 2 a.m. nightclub really killed him.

The final obstacle awaits

I am still chuckling from Rip Hamilton’s sing-song chant in the victorious locker room. “They don’t know that’s what we do! They don’t know that’s what we do!”

He was in the shower area, restricted to players, but he was so loud that the reporters in the locker area couldn’t help but hear and laugh. The more they laughed, the more he kept yelling it. It was a perfect metaphor, all the outsiders able to hear the mantra, but only his teammates able to look him in the eye and nod.

Because this really is what they do. They push to the limit and then they bring it home. They are like kids swimming in hidden coves, attracted at times to the dangerous areas but always confident they can swim back to shore. They test your nerves. They test your resolve. But they don’t seem to test their own. That is what amazes.

From that Malice at the Palace incident last November, to Larry Brown’s first and second disappearance in the middle of the season, to the return of a vengeful Indiana team in the playoffs, to the rumors of Brown’s courtship with Cleveland, to the mountain of Shaq and the flash flood of Dwyane Wade – all these things that could have thrown the Pistons off their boat. They never did.

They take that resolve now down to Texas, where the final worthy challenger of their era awaits. Many thought San Antonio was the best team last year but was edged out on a miracle shot by the Lakers’ Derek Fisher. Fine. The Pistons will go, like a heavyweight champion who takes on all comers, to affirm their pedigree against the Spurs.

But let’s remember. Detroit already has decimated Phil, Shaq and Kobe, has already crushed the rock-hard Indiana Pacers (twice) and has now bested the new Beast of the East, the Miami Heat. Should the Pistons beat San Antonio, no one can say they didn’t slay all the dragons.

Maybe then, if the Pistons are lucky, people will talk less about where they sit late at night and more about where they stand at the end of the day.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. He will sign Father’s Day copies of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” on Sunday – 12:30 p.m. at Borders in Southland Mall in Taylor – and on June 18 – 11:30 a.m. at Borders in Birmingham, 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Northville and 4:30 p.m. at Borders Express at Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760). To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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