So now they have a taste. Now they know what it feels like to want something so badly, to have the devil’s foot on your neck and to grab that foot and struggle for your life. I salute the Pistons’ courage and I salute their effort.

And that’s it for the nice stuff.

Oh, the polite thing, I know, would be to say lots of kind words about the Pistons this morning. Compliment them on a brave effort in their final game. After all, they just finished their first playoff series in four years, and the closer Tuesday night was loud and bloody and courageous. What’s the point of any harsh words for Grant Hill or Allan Houston after a sweep by Orlando? Everyone knows the Magic is better. What good will criticism do?

Well, maybe none. But neither will a lot of sweet compliments. The point of the game, at the professional level, is to win, and the Pistons, for all their courage, still won nothing in this playoff series, not even the one game they got at home. If the players want to walk away from that feeling proud, they’re in the wrong business.

“You don’t make the playoffs to get swept,” Joe Dumars said, after the 101-98 loss. “These guys learned the difference between the playoffs and the regular season.”

And they should walk away mad, they should walk away with smoke coming from their ears. They should be haunted by all the missed chances, all those rimmed-out shots in the fourth quarter Tuesday night, all those spin moves by the Magic that left them lost, all those foul calls that held them down like leg irons. And, next week, when they see Orlando on TV, they should simmer and boil and say, “Damn, that could have been us!”

In simple terms, what I’m suggesting here, is 1) Anger and 2) Hunger.

The Pistons need more of each by the time they return next October.

No more Mr. Nice Guys. Pistons not their best

Hey, folks, don’t get me wrong. I know it was fun out there for a few minutes in Game 3. And I know the Pistons were playing without their coach, Doug Collins, who was ejected in the third quarter for protesting a call. But what we saw Tuesday was not the best game this team can play. It better not be. For one thing, their superstar, Grant Hill, was almost a non-factor in the fourth quarter. This will not be much of a franchise if the franchise player is not the go-to guy when it counts. Grant may be everyone’s favorite fella — he deserves to be, he’s special — but if I know him the way I think I do, he’s the most upset of anyone with his four baskets and five fouls Tuesday night.

“I think Grant was tired,” Collins said. No doubt. Hill pulled the weight of a freight train this season.

But there are certain unwritten codes in the NBA, and one is this: When your team is against the wall, The Man on the team has to keep it alive. Sure, Hill is going to get double- teamed. So? What great player isn’t? The best ones find something extra, they rise above the others, they jump higher, they show up in places you don’t expect them and leave you shaking your head. Anfernee Hardaway did it Tuesday night — did it when Shaquille O’Neal was on the bench with foul trouble. Allan Houston did it as well, scoring 33 points, 13 in the fourth quarter.

Hill needs to jump to that next ledge in post-season play, and it may require something he has never really had: a sense of selfishness, and a temper with his teammates. He can’t worry about being the nice guy out there. He has to want the ball, and know he’s going to do the best thing with it.

“I wasn’t at my best,” Hill admitted. “I’m going to take this series into next year. Not the nights I had career highs. This series.”

That’s a start.

No more Mr. Nice Guys. Anger is right attitude

Now it’s true, the Magic’s players are bigger and beefier at every position. Walking out to face them is like walking to the bottom of a mountain and looking up.

And it’s true, the final period Tuesday was guts and glory. It was Dumars leaping onto the scorer’s table to save a ball, throwing it backward over his head to Houston, keeping a play alive. It was Houston getting schooled by Nick Anderson on the baseline, but coming right back the next play and returning the favor, spinning and hitting a jumper. It was Houston again, with time running out, drilling a three-point bomb that pulled the Pistons within one.

Maybe on a luckier night, the Pistons would have won. Maybe on a night when the refs were kinder, when controversial plays didn’t seem to all go against the Pistons — just what is the problem with this Ed Middleton guy? —

maybe the score would be happier. But the Pistons can’t count on that. They have to go out and take it.

When Collins asked the team if anyone wanted to say something after the game, Houston stood and said, “Everyone better work their bleeps off this summer!”

Anger is good. That’s how you improve. I’m not one of those people who likes to bring up the “old” Pistons, but there was one thing the Bad Boys had that every team to win a championship since had, too. A game face. An attitude. A bitter determination not to lose, and a belief that it was not supposed to lose.

Complimenting a team on getting swept in a series isn’t going to make it better. The Pistons are too good for pampering now, and they know it.

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