TO THE FINALS!

MIAMI – It was the final minutes of the final game and he was playing without his headband and with five fouls and with the ugly roar of boos and hate raining down on anything good he did for his team. So what did Rasheed Wallace do?

He did more of it.

He hit two free throws to put the Pistons ahead by one. He went after a loose ball and helped knocked it off a Miami player. He followed a Tayshaun Prince miss and banked it in, giving the Pistons a three-point lead with less than a minute to go. He helped tie up Dwyane Wade to force a jump ball.

He was the villain everywhere in the arena – maybe everywhere in the country that doesn’t have a Great Lake around it – but he was a hero in Detroit.

Whose basketball team, by the way, has a few more games to play.

It goes on. The quest. The reputation. The words “defending champions” after “Detroit Pistons.” Here in the land of hurricanes and alligators, the Pistons’ defense of their NBA crown, thought to be dangling off a pirate ship’s plank, has survived the squall, it will play for another title. It took punches, it was bruised, it was dizzy and spinning and at times it was almost a stranger to its own reflection.

But it stands this morning, the crown still on its head, thanks to an exhausting 88-82 Game 7 victory over Miami. And it is marching down to Texas, to face the final challenge in the war they call a championship.

Heat. Beat.

It goes on. It goes on because when it counted most in these Eastern Conference finals, the Pistons remembered who they were and how they got that way, keeping the Heat at jab’s length until they could deliver the final knockout blow.

It goes on because Rip Hamilton, a ridiculously efficient machine, came alive early, pulling up and burying his first six shots and eight of his first 10. “The great players are the ones that dictate what happens in a game like this,” Larry Brown had said less than an hour before tip-off.

Consider Hamilton great. He had 22 points on 11-for-16 shooting. It goes on because of him.

It goes on because the Pistons somehow survived Wade’s visit to Lourdes at halftime. Wade scored 12 acrobatic points in the third quarter. But the Pistons absorbed him and his magic . It goes on because of their defense.

And it goes on because Rasheed was Rasheed when he most needed to be. Forget the floating games earlier in the series. There is something intangible about this guy, like a lighter that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but when it does, what a flame.

It goes on. The season. The playoffs. The players. The coach. The interviews. The predictions. The Brown rumors. All of it. It goes on for at least another week or two now, because the Pistons, winners of the East, will face San Antonio, winners of the West.

It goes on.

Just call him ‘Willis’ Wade

It goes away. This Miami Heat group that tested Detroit, that pushed it to the limit of its lungs and heart and brain, finally rides off into the humid sunset. The Heat have been eliminated after what felt like a month-long series. Ask yourself, did you have any idea who Udonis Haslem was before this thing started? Did you know Eddie Jones? Could you tell Stan Van Gundy from a deli counter worker, even though he often looks like a deli counter worker?

No, but you can now. The Heat, starting with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade and moving down the lineup, were a formidable foe for the Pistons. The 40-point performance by Wade in Game 2 was, it turned out, only the opening salvo in a Miami bombardment. Wade continued his excellence right up to his injury in Game 5. Shaq burned Ben Wallace night after night. Damon Jones and Rasual Butler went from “What’s the difference?” to being the difference in the last Miami victory.

Wade was “the story” Monday night, a question mark until game time with that rib muscle strain. He came out to thunderous applause, and he was there in the starting lineup. But despite a few early acrobatics, he was more miss than make in the first half, and his mobility was clearly limited.

Then came the second half. I don’t know what they gave him in the locker room, but they should market it. Wade nearly won the game himself, making 5-of-6 in the third quarter, disrupting everything, causing the crowd to rise in collective bursts of amazement.

The Heat, which had a six-point lead in the fourth quarter, is a dogged bunch, on offense and on defense, and you can bet it’ll be back next year. Whatever edge O’Neal might lose as he ages, Wade will make up for in experience and savvy. Let’s face it. Miami makes winning the Eastern Conference a lot more difficult.

But the East is in the Pistons’ pocket now, thanks to Rasheed’s heroics and Chauncey Billups’ four cool-handed free throws in the closing seconds.

And the final snapshot of O’Neal, that open-mouthed, dazed look on his face, a giant who had never lost a Game 7 in his career having to watch for a second June as the Pistons leave him behind – well, that is the image that allows Detroit fans to take their first real basketball breath in about two weeks.

Heat. Beat.

It goes away.

Brown had the right bunch

It goes down in history. This was the first Detroit Game 7 victory on the road. Three other times the Pistons tried and failed. I remember the last two. They came in back-to-back years, 1987 and ’88, when the Pistons were trying to climb the mountain of the Celtics and the Lakers, who basically owned the NBA during the ’80s. The first time, the Pistons fell short after Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson knocked heads going for a loose ball. The ghosts of the Boston Garden were giggling. Detroit went home, hurt and hungry.

Detroit came back one year later, beat those Celtics, then went to seven games against the Lakers, losing in the finale mostly because Isiah Thomas was gimpy with a turned ankle. The movie stars in the L.A. Forum danced and laughed. Detroit went home again, hurt and hungry.

So how did the Pistons overcome the hex Monday night? Simple. Those others defeats were steps on a ladder, rites of passage for a team that was building to a championship. These Pistons aren’t learning to win a title; they are trying to keep it. They are dead set on keeping it. Perhaps that didn’t play like that every minute of this series, but what counts, they will tell you, is not the first team to win two or three games but the first team to win four.

They did it. On the road.

Before the game, I asked Brown to reflect on his time with this group – seeing as it well could have been his last game with them.

“Well, I came because I had a lot of respect for Joe” Dumars, Brown said, “and you had to be foolish not to recognize what he was trying to do … bringing in character guys, tough guys. He told me he felt that group had a chance to be pretty darned good and he said I’ll never be with a bunch of players that I would have more admiration for. …

“It’s turned out way beyond my wildest dreams.”

And that was before the Monday night victory.

It goes away – the hated Heat,

It goes down – in history.

It goes on – the Pistons’ reign – all the way down to San Antonio.

Right after a brief nap.

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 on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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