They're so good, the Detroit Pistons. They're so poised in the chaos of the final seconds, so well-coached, so talented. They hit free throws, run the screen-and-roll to perfection, stay between the man they're guarding and the rim. In an age too often given over to high-flying, over-hyped skill-deficient divas, the Pistons play old-school, textbook basketball to the final drop, sharing the ball and the credit, caring not a bit about stardom. The team logo ought to be a medicine ball.
An 88-82 victory over Miami in Game 7 means the Pistons will wear their championship belts into the ring once more, beginning with the NBA championship series in San Antonio against the Spurs, the champs once-removed. To get there, the Pistons had to do it the hard way, winning Game 7 on the road against Shaquille O'Neal.
Folks here will forever believe, or at least until next year when Miami presumably gets another crack at it, that the Heat would have beaten Detroit on Monday night had Dwyane Wade been able to play free and easy instead of wincing and worrying about the pain caused by that pulled muscle in his rib cage. When Wade played like an all-timer, through the pain, it looked as if he'd finish the series with the kind of performance that inspires people to build statues. And indeed, Miami led 74-68 in the fourth quarter. But when the Heat blew a couple of chances to extend the lead to eight points, the Pistons sensed an opportunity and jumped on it as only a champion can. Everybody in a Detroit uniform seemed to make the right play, the right decision, from Rasheed Wallace to Chauncey Billups to Tayshaun Prince to Richard Hamilton -- even old farmhand Elden Campbell chipped in with a free throw down the stretch.
Every team in the playoffs seems to have an acrobatic player, somebody the TV producers would want featured prominently in the highlight video. Detroit's signature is probably Billups calmly swishing free throws in the final seconds to protect a lead. And if not that, then Ben Wallace setting a screen to free Hamilton, or Prince running down a long rebound to keep alive a possession that results in a three-pointer. These Pistons play the way the old Auerbach Celtics did, with motion and passing, with stubbornness and attention to detail, and, yes, with a properly placed elbow when it's necessary.
These Pistons are so dependent on efficient, fundamental, error-free, low-wattage basketball that there's a tendency to think the team on deck is the one that will get them. But the way they beat the Los Angeles Lakers last year is the way they beat Miami this year. They killed the Heat with the stuff coaches teach freshman year. As scruffy and as annoying as Rasheed Wallace can be, he hits as sweet a turnaround jumper as the league has seen a big man shoot since Elvin Hayes. Billups may have been a castoff once upon a time, but there's nobody playing the game any more reliably than he is at the end of games. Hamilton may not have been deemed a "max" player by Michael Jordan and the Wizards, but he's only the most deadly medium-range shooter in the world.
Miami will play "what if" all summer, especially when it looks at Wade's 7-for-20 shooting and feels he would have scored 10 more than his 20 in Game 7 if he'd been healthy. And perhaps Miami has a point. It's difficult to imagine a whole Heat team losing Game 7 at home.
Even so, Detroit is a better team. The Pistons have more options offensively, more answers defensively. They're battle-scarred and tested to the max and they don't waste chances to put an opponent on its back.
Wade, as valiantly as he played, was in a world of trouble no matter the matchups. In perfect health, he would be hard pressed to run with Hamilton for 40 minutes or more. Billups is too shifty to ask Wade to expend that kind of energy. And at 6 feet 9 with the wingspan of a pterodactyl, Prince figured to go to the post-up time and again, which starts with getting an elbow perfectly placed in Wade's ribcage. Fearlessness is Wade's signature, and at times he showed flashes of his usual game but not 40 minutes of it, which Miami needed against Detroit.
Meanwhile, Detroit played as arrogantly as a champion ought to. Two old-school basketball traits were on display in abundance. The Pistons seemed to get to every loose ball, and they ran the screen-and-roll as well as a team could, so well that the Miami defenders were forever late running to reach the shooter. Wallace was so open on several jumpers he screamed at the Heat players, "Don't leave ME!"
The Pistons aren't talented enough to have much room for error, but it seems they know that, too. They survived a flurry from Wade in the third quarter when he took five shots, hit all five, tied the game at 60 after Detroit had led by 10, and sent the crowd into the biggest frenzy in the 17-year history of the franchise.
But the Pistons kept working at it, kept moving without the ball until they found the right shooter, kept hounding Wade until he turned cold, kept guys such as Eddie Jones and Damon Jones from having a big impact on the game.
And now, they're going to San Antonio to play another virtually perfect team, a team just like them, one that passes and cuts and shoots and defends and has anti-divas who hate to be credited. The folks who think sports should be pure entertainment and measure exclusively by the Nielsen ratings won't like Detroit vs. San Antonio because there's no glitz, no quote machine like Shaq, no 50 Most Beautiful People cultural crossover star like Wade, nobody to market like The Big Ticket or A.I.
Detroit vs. San Antonio is a purist's series, one that promises basketball too classic to be apologized for. The current champs and the most recent former champs deserve to continue playing as spring becomes summer, and beyond that until the most worthy challengers in the league, like the Miami Heat, figure out a way to be better than the best.