THIS TIME THE BEST TEAM ACTUALLY WON

This is why basketball isn’t hockey. Because the No. 1 seed really is better than the No. 8 seed. Because while major upsets are possible, they are not expected. Because the game doesn’t hinge on one suddenly hot goalie, but on a team that puts it together as a team – and puts the lesser team away.

The Early Bird catches some zzz’s. Thanks to Wednesday’s weird 6 p.m. start time, the Pistons not only wrapped up their first-round playoff series against Milwaukee, they could watch it in bed on the 11 o’clock news. Never mind that network TV doesn’t consider the best team in basketball worthy of prime time. This is about resting, not ratings.

The Pistons did exactly what they needed to do. Using one game more than the minimum, they disposed of the Bucks, blew them out, and now get some time off. Resting is as essential as filling your tank before a desert drive, or guzzling water before a marathon.

Win five. Take five.

“We wanted to take care of business at home,” said Rip Hamilton, who set a personal playoff best with 40 points in just over three quarters of play in the 122-93 victory. “It doesn’t really matter who we play next. We just want to sit back and watch them beat each other up.”

Those amazing moments

Here is how you bulldoze a team. First half: Hamilton took the opening tip pass and laid the ball in. Then he hit a jumper. Then he hit another. He had 10 points in the first seven minutes, 15 points in the first nine and 24 by halftime.

The Pistons had one foot on Milwaukee’s neck.

Second half: Rasheed Wallace hit three three-pointers in about a minute and a half, each one seemingly longer than the next. The crowd exploded. Detroit’s lead went to 30.

The other foot goes on the neck.

It’s all over but the garbage time.

That fast. That efficient. Even Tayshaun Prince’s hitting a halfcourt heave was taken in stride. Prince just turned to the crowd, shrugged and let the folks congratulate him.

“You practice that shot?” I asked him.

“Oh, yeah.” he grinned. “All the time.”

You want to know how focused the Pistons and their fans are on the prize? At the start of the fourth quarter, with Detroit up 31, Hamilton was still in the game.

And a fan screamed to coach Flip Saunders: “SIT HIM DOWN, FLIP!”

Win five. Take five.

Primed for the playoffs

Now, a word here about Saunders. For his first eight seasons in Minnesota, the Timberwolves never got past the first round. Inevitably, people questioned his coaching. Well, obviously, Flip isn’t a hex.

“When we came in, I said to Joe (Dumars), ‘Thanks, it took me nine years to get past the first round in Minnesota,’ ” Saunders said. “It was a lot quicker this time.” His team now has won 68 times this season and lost just 19. It must be nice to be the first coach in your conference to be through to the next level, instead of the first to go home.

“When I came here people asked me, ‘You got beat in the playoffs, why?’ ” Saunders said. “It’s because the other team was better than us. In these playoff series, usually the best team wins …

“Our team is built for playoffs … the character, the leadership … the ability to have different people that can carry us different parts of the game.”

And the ability to stay on task, to not let a Game 3 loss be anything more than that, to not let a lower seed start acting like a top seed.

This is what No. 1 versus No. 8 should be. This is how the world makes sense. Hockey can brag about its wonderful egalitarianism, every team virtually the same, but that doesn’t make for dynasties and it doesn’t make for marquee teams and it certainly doesn’t make it easy on fans with big expectations.

The Pistons just made it easy. They won and got to bed early. And you know what they say about early to bed …

Early to rise.

Let’s see how high they can go.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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