TWO TO GO!

On a night when the lights could have gone out for good, this play was as glaring as it gets. Shaquille O’Neal had the ball, he rose for a shot and Ben Wallace rose with him. Wallace cemented his right hand on that ball and power-armed it backward, literally crashing O’Neal, all 325 pounds of him, back to Earth, and halfway to the airport – where both teams are headed.

Note the word “both.”

Not here. Not now.

There should be no slaps of congratulations today, no huge sighs of relief. Wednesday night’s 91-78 Game 5 victory was no more than a stay of execution, one last night to sit happily in traffic as you exit the Palace.

But if this was the last joyous night of the season, at least it fit the bill. It saw the Pistons revert to their trademark defense in the closing, maddening minutes. It saw Tayshaun Prince return to his clutch form with big three-pointers and critical rebounds. It saw Chauncey Billups return to being Mr. Big Assist – if not Mr. Big Shot. It saw Antonio McDyess, who counts ended seasons the way forlorn lovers count disappearing pedals on a flower, rise to the occasion, rise to the jump shots, rise to the rebounds, rise to the rim.

And it saw Wallace, much maligned for his offense, reminding people that defense is half the game, too. He soared for a block. He darted in and stole a pass. The Pistons held the Heat to 13 points in the fourth quarter, 78 points overall and 44% shooting, which is like a bucket of ice compared to how it had been shooting.

“We’re approaching every game like a tournament,” said Wallace, who finished with eight points, seven rebounds, three blocks and two steals. “You lose and you go home.”

Not here. Not now.

Time to have some fun

Now, to be honest, if you’re a Pistons fan, you’re torn this morning between being glad and mad. You’re happy the team is still alive, but you believe if it had played like this in any of those losses, it wouldn’t have been on the brink of elimination in the first place.

Here was the energy that had been missing in Games 1, 3 and 4. Here was the extra pass, the whipping of the ball to the other side for an open look. Here was the swarming defense.

And yes, here was some balance to the foul calls. The Heat shot 47 free throws in Game 4 and just 20 in Game 5, and missed 14 of those. You can’t count on that happening again.

So, yes, it was a fine victory, a continuation of the Pistons’ tradition of staving off the killer’s blade, which now stands 11-2 in elimination games since 2004.

But it should not take the feel of a wall against your back to make you play your best. As Wallace said, “It was easy to come out with energy tonight.”

But what about the other nights? We still don’t know what happened there. And maybe it’s better off forgotten. The Pistons should burn those tapes and just watch the best parts of Game 5 now.

“When you’re in a situation where it’s elimination, you play as if you have nothing to lose,” Tayshaun Prince, who led the way with 29 points, told ESPN after the game. “You can go out and do whatever, have fun, and it’s things like this that happen.”

Did he say fun?

On the road again

Well, all right. Time to have fun on the road. Remember, the Pistons did nothing here but avoid the blade of a guillotine. Their hands are still tied, their blindfold is still in place. They have not won in this series in Miami. In truth, they haven’t, even played well in Miami. And if Friday night’s Game 6 is another repeat of that, then nobody will remember this victory. Really, does it make a difference if you lose 4-1 or 4-2?

But there’s one more plane trip and one more chance, and chances are all they want and the best they can hope for.

“We knew we can’t win this game and win it all,” said Billups, “but we put everything we got into one game and now we’ve got to put everything we’ve got into another game. We put the pressure back on them to try to win at home – if not, they are in trouble coming back here to the Palace.”

Well, that’s a long way off. This is not about an elimination game, it’s about an elimination week. The Pistons, if they survive until Game 7, will have gone six days under the sword. Wednesday’s victory doesn’t end anything. It doesn’t solve anything. It just prolongs something.

But just as Wallace’s amazing block on Shaq sent a subtle message, so did the scoreboard at the buzzer of this one.

Not here. Not now.

Maybe there.

Maybe not.

ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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