WIN-WINPISTONS: HARD WORK LEADS TO THE 2ND ROUND AT LASTRED WINGS: THEY ZING THE BLUES TO START

Their engine, Jerry Stackhouse, was sputtering badly, so the Pistons tried everything under the hood. They jumped the battery, they tweaked the carburetor, they threw the fuses. Finally, they got out and pushed. There is more than one way to win a playoff series, and when pretty doesn’t work, go ugly if you have to, but get there.

The season lives. It took free throws, it took poked balls, it took a steal here, a knock-away there, a few mistakes by the other guys, a couple of wild bounces, but they cobbled it all together until the last 100 or so seconds when finally, finally, Stackhouse ran to the lane and hit his first shot of the night, and then Cliff Robinson made a steal, Corliss Williamson made a clutch beat-the-clock lay-in, and the Palace exploded in a way it hasn’t exploded since Zeke, Joe and Bill were wearing too-short shorts.

The season lives.

“This is a great feeling,” said Williamson, the hero of the night, who scored 23 points off the bench and slapped hands with half the crowd before leaving the Palace Thursday night, as the Pistons finally outlasted Toronto, 85-82, to advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs. “Our bench is used to giving a spark — especially on nights when the stars are having trouble.”

Consider this such a night. When the buzzer sounded, Stackhouse heaved the ball into the stands, no doubt thinking, “I hope I never see THAT one again.”

Could you blame him? If the game goes the other way, Jerry’s in therapy all summer. Accepted as the resident superstar, Stackhouse made just one shot in 10 attempts in arguably the biggest game of his career. He was a ghost in his own moment, woefully short on impact until the end. He played sparingly in the first half, 14 minutes, and looked none too happy about it, glaring occasionally at his coach, Rick Carlisle. But could you blame Carlisle? Stackhouse not only missed every shot he took in the first half, he never drew a foul. The thinking goes, in a big game especially, if you’re not shooting well, get to the line.

“It’s a different sort of experience for him to go through,” Carlisle said. “I knew he was going to hit a big shot at some point. I knew it in my heart.”

He did it with the score tied at 79. One basket. His only one of the night.

The Pistons never trailed again.

“This,” Stackhouse said afterward, “is a huge relief.”

If you can’t do what you want, do what you can.

The season lives.

A crazy, crazy night

What a wild ride this was! Kwame Kilpatrick, the mayor of Detroit, was courtside, but wearing black, the color of mourning. The crowd was loud but waving white towels, the symbol of surrender. It was that kind of night. You never knew if you were going to get up or give up.

The Pistons once again started slowly, fell behind, and seemed out of sync. For a while it looked as if 50 victories in a season would be ruined by a three losses in a week.

But thanks to Jon Barry in the first half — 12 fast points, some tremendous hustle — and Williamson in the second, the Pistons are still alive. They will play the winner of the Boston-Philadelphia series starting Sunday at the Palace.

Count on seeing more of Williamson. He was the go-to guy Thursday night. You can make a case that he has really been the go-to guy all season. Whenever the Pistons needed a hoop, he was there, banging in, twisting against the defender, drawing a whistle if not the bottom of the net.

“Hard to believe that guy wasn’t good enough to play for us the first two games, huh?” Carlisle joked, referring to his early lack of confidence in Williamson.

No such problem anymore. Corliss’ basket with 27 seconds left was critical. He somehow snuck inside the lane and Stackhouse found him on an inbounds pass with two seconds left on the shot clock. In a single motion, Corliss was up at the glass banking it in.

“We’ve run that play a few times over the year,” Williamson said. “Whoever it was under the basket fell asleep. I told Stack I was going for it. He said he was looking for me anyway.”

Williamson, basket.

Stackhouse, assist.

If you can’t do what you want, you do what you can.

The next level

Now, some might wonder whether Stackhouse’s shadow game Thursday will haunt him in the next round. Hard to tell. In his entire career, this is really the first time he has been asked to lift a team by himself to the next round. Either he’s spooked by it or he learns from it. We’ll find out soon enough.

Meanwhile, how about a hand for this basketball team, which some pundits picked for last place in the Eastern Conference. The Pistons have exceeded expectations. Thursday night, they even exceeded their own self-made pitfalls. That’s the mark of a team growing up.

Which gives us a moment to say this: The Palace was not sold out as of Thursday morning. That’s pathetic. For a town like this, as starved as it is for playoffs? Yes, I know the Red Wings were playing. But does that mean the whole town wants to stay home? You mean there aren’t 20,000 people in this town who want to see a deciding NBA game?

Instead — perhaps as a result of this — the palace had a loud contingent of Toronto fans, who made its presence known, screaming “LET’S GO RAPTORS” in hockey-style chant. You should never be able to hear the opposing teams’ fans in your building. We need to work on that.

We’ll have the chance. Round 2 begins Sunday. It wasn’t pretty. It was more of a wreck being pushed across the finish line. But all that counts is that you get there.

The season lives. Basketball in May. And here’s a sentence you rarely see this low in a Detroit sports story:

The Wings won, too.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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