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Published: Wednesday, 5/4/2005

Pistons pick up their game at the right time

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - The warning signs arrived early that the Philadelphia 76ers would not go quietly into the night.

Midway into the first quarter of a game the Detroit Pistons were supposed to win just by showing up, you could feel the frustration, sense that the favored Pistons were in trouble instead of the underdog 76ers being in over their heads.

Trailing for nearly the entire first half while appearing to be powerless and helpless against quicksilver All-Star guard Allen Iverson, the Pistons hitched a ride on the A.I. Express and attempted to ride out the storm.

Faced with the first close-out game of their opening playoff series, playing in front of another sellout and joyfully expectant crowd at the Palace, the Pistons were swept up in the emotion of the moment instead of playing the right way.

Finally, deep into the third quarter, the Pistons quit pretending and started playing the way only they know how: to win.

As a result, the best team in the NBA moved one step closer to another championship with an 88-78 victory.

Pay attention, Miami, Indiana and Boston. Take notes, San Antonio, Phoenix and Seattle. It's not how you start, but how you finish. It's not how you look, but how you win. It's not how much you win by - just don't lose.

For the first three quarters, Detroit and Philadelphia traded places. Philadelphia looked more like Detroit than the Pistons did as the 76th consecutive sellout crowd at the Palace looked on in disbelief and groaned its displeasure.

Iverson was the best player on the court. Last night he played like the best player in the world.

He did it all. He shot the ball with accuracy and without shame. Maturing before our eyes, he also displayed tremendous court awareness because he didn't try to beat the Pistons by himself.

Talk about a good team with a promising future. Philadelphia rookie forward Andre Iguodola and developing center Samuel Dalembert are solid building blocks.

Iverson is Iverson.

Another scorer and defensive stopper, and maybe the Pistons and 76ers are preparing to play Game 6 in Philadelphia.

However, from the beginning, this was a series that had five games written all over it. The Pistons were too talented, too deep, too poised, too experienced, too confident, too driven.

The 76ers were too much Iverson and not enough Chris Webber, who couldn't get it done because he's still favoring a knee injury from two years ago that has transformed him into a jump-shooter with no post-up game.

The importance and timing of last night's win can't be overstated.

Detroit won the series 4-1. The final victory over Philadelphia sent the Pistons to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the fourth straight year. And last night's win gave the Pistons several days to prepare for their next opponent, either Indiana or Boston.

Closing out Philadelphia in only five games is also significant because Tayshaun Prince can now rest his sprained ankle.

Prince started and played in Game 5, but he lacked his usual explosion and lateral quickness. Rest is the best cure for Prince, a tremendous all-around talent who will be needed at full strength for the next series.

Let last night be a lesson for Pistons fans. At the end of the game, only two questions matter:

Did you win? Or didn't you?

The Pistons win, more often than not, and always when it counts.



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