WITH HARD WORK, PISTONS GO ONE UP ON LAST SEASON

Aaron McKie was chasing the ball the way a child chases a rolling Frisbee. He dove for it, he poked it, but he couldn’t grab it. He knocked it from one corner of the court to the other, a defender racing him the whole time. Finally, in front of the Pistons’ bench, McKie scooped the ball up between two opponents, and as he was falling out of bounds, he threw it to Joe Dumars.

Dumars whipped it to Terry Mills.

Mills drained a three-pointer that brought the crowd to its feet.

It was as important a play as there would be in this game — even though it was only the first quarter. That effort — which Dumars later described as
“a winner’s play” — set a mood and a tone.

And you will notice that nowhere were the words “Grant Hill” mentioned.

That may be the most important part of all.

“I can’t tell you how great a win this was for us,” an ebullient Doug Collins said after the 86-83 gritfest Sunday night against Seattle, last year’s Western Conference champion. Collins looked over the stat sheet, then said, “I don’t know where to start.”

Here’s an idea. Start with the one guy who was not a standout. Hill made only three baskets all night. He didn’t take his first shot until the second quarter. He was attacked by the Seattle defense the way Brad Pitt would be attacked at a California shopping mall.

And yet, the Pistons won. And if they’re to go anywhere in the playoffs, they’ll have to have even more of what they had Sunday night.

Such as . . .

Inside and outside

Terry Mills. Responding to the challenge of playing inside, he looked like a highlight film of his old Michigan in-the-paint days. Mills spun off of defenders such as Shawn Kemp and Sam Perkins and hung in the air for short bank shots. He tipped in a Grant Hill miss. He blocked two shots and grabbed four rebounds.

And, oh, yes, he shot three-pointers. Or maybe hurled is a better word. Hurled. Heaved. Drained. Whatever. In the first half he was 4-for-4 from beyond the stripe, and 4-for-4 from within it.

Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside.

Then there were McKie and Michael Curry. Both off-the-bench guards, both critical Sunday night because of effort and smarts. Curry sank four free throws in the final 20 seconds, and McKie jump-started the game with his ball chase and closed it with a steal of the inbounds pass from Kemp to kill Seattle’s last chance.

And then there was Joe Dumars, who, like Pacino or Springsteen, is more fascinating to watch as he gets older. You can call Grant Hill the MVP of this team, but it doesn’t function without No. 4. Not only did he score 21 points, including two huge, hanging three-pointers that put the Pistons ahead for good, but he also directed the team through 43 minutes of floor time, yelling, pointing and funneling Collins’ plays as if he had a microphone behind his ear.

And when it was over, he sat in his locker, almost giddy. Few people realized that this victory, the 47th, officially makes this Pistons season better than last.

And there’s still a month to go.

“Winning No. 47 is really important to me,” Dumars said, “because over the summer, when we lost Allan Houston and we didn’t sign the big free agents, a lot of people said, ‘No way you’ll win 46 games again.’

“This only goes to show what you can do when you believe in yourselves.”

He’s right. So good have the Pistons become, and so resilient when they have a few bumps, that you expect them to win — even in games against the top teams.

“Hey, for the first month, we surprised ourselves,” Dumars admitted. “We said, ‘Man, we won again?’ But somewhere along the line, we began to believe that we were supposed to win. To me, that’s the difference between winning and losing. What you believe about yourself.”

He smiled.

“We feel like we’re supposed to beat Seattle when they come here. It’s that simple.”

Route 55 or bust

Of course, nothing is simple in the NBA. Teams are running at Hill much more now, pounding on him, doubling on him.

“The moment I dribble to my left,” he said, “there are two guys, even if the play isn’t designed for me to shoot.”

The opposing philosophy is: “We’re going to dwarf Grant Hill; let’s see if Detroit has anything else to beat us.”

Sunday, the Pistons did. The victory was also noteworthy because they had just played Seattle five nights earlier. They made adjustments — just as they will have to do in the playoffs, when they face the same team as much as seven straight times. Teams will try things. Detroit needs more than one game plan.

For now, a tip of the hat to a team that, as Dumars said, was not supposed to get to 47 victories, and now will be disappointed if it doesn’t win 55. What a perfect way to make such a mark — with such players as Mills, McKie, Curry, Dumars and Otis Thorpe leading the way, and Hill being allowed to be human for a night.

They were not supposed to be as good as last season, and now, who knows? Like McKie pursuing that ball from one end of the floor to the other, the joy is in the chase.

Mitch Albom’s radio show — “Albom in the Afternoon,” 4-6 p.m. on WJR-AM
(760) — will broadcast live from Somerset North today.

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