- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

CLEVELAND — No NBA team enjoys life on the edge quite like the Detroit Pistons.

Minutes away from witnessing their spectacular season come crashing down last night, they stepped up like champions.

They almost always do.

Summoning all their postseason experience and making every big play down the stretch, the Pistons beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 84-82 to even their series and force a decisive Game 7.

“We know what it takes,” Detroit’s Ben Wallace said. “We’ve been together awhile. We don’t panic.”

The Pistons’ biggest win of 2006 wasn’t secure until the final tick of the clock, when a free throw intentionally missed by LeBron James was nearly tipped into the basket by Detroit’s Chauncey Billups — another unlucky bounce for the Cavaliers.

“I got my hand on it, and I almost made the basket for them,” Billups said. “When it was in the air, I was like, ‘Wow, not like this.’”

The series finale is tomorrow at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., where until Game 5 of this series, the Pistons had looked invincible. Before the closing minutes in Game 6, it appeared Detroit might be headed home for good.

Rasheed Wallace, whose Game 4 prediction of a victory and quick end to the series backfired, scored 24 points, Richard Hamilton had 17 and Billups 15 for the Pistons, who grabbed several key offensive rebounds in the final minutes to deny the Cavaliers a trip to the Eastern Conference finals against Miami.

James finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. But Cleveland’s superstar had seven turnovers and he and his teammates weren’t able to beat the Pistons to loose balls in the final three minutes.

The underdog Cavaliers, who had won three straight in the series, missed a chance to put away the Pistons and now have to come up with another win in the NBA’s toughest arena.

“Nobody thought we would be here,” James said. “Nobody thought we’d be in a Game 7 against the Pistons. We proved the doubters wrong. We have to prove some more wrong.”

Detroit has made a habit of winning Game 6s with its season on the line.

Last year, the Pistons were down 3-2 in the conference finals before rallying to beat Miami in seven games. In 2004, they won Game 6 at New Jersey and then ousted the Nets in Game 7. A year earlier, Detroit won a Game 6 at Orlando and then ended the Magic’s season in the next game.

Rasheed Wallace, who has spent the series talking trash, has no regrets about any bold statements or guarantees.

“I can’t always be right,” he said. “I’ve got the confidence that we can go out there and whoop up on some people.”

Trailing 77-76 after two free throws by James, Wallace flung up a shot off the glass in the lane and was fouled, and his three-point play gave the Pistons a lead they would never let go.

After James was stripped on a spin in the foul lane, Billups hit a jumper from the top of the key as the 24-second shot clock expired, giving Detroit an 81-77 lead with 2:21 left.

James, driving to the hoop every chance he could, made four straight free throws to pull the Cavaliers within 83-81 with 1:04 left. Wallace missed a jumper, but Tayshaun Prince tipped the ball to Hamilton, allowing the Pistons to kill more time.

Wallace missed again, but Hamilton ran down the long rebound in the corner before the Cavaliers fouled Wallace.

Detroit’s motor-mouthed forward missed both free throws, but Cleveland’s Flip Murray couldn’t corral the rebound and Billups was put on the line. He split a pair with 10.1 seconds left, giving the Cavaliers a final chance.

With his team needing a 3-pointer to tie, Cleveland coach Mike Brown screamed for his team to call a timeout, but before the Cavaliers could, James was fouled with 1.4 seconds to play. James, who went 15-for-18 from the line, swished the first.

He pushed the second one left on purpose and Zydrunas Ilgauskas — with an unlikely assist from Billups — nearly got a miraculous bounce off the top of the glass.

When it didn’t drop, the Pistons charged off the bench and for the first time in days, could crack a few smiles.

“Cleveland did something that no one did all year,” Rasheed Wallace said. “They beat us three in a row [without any other games in between]. We [darn] sure couldn’t make it four straight.”

The Cavaliers welcomed back guard Larry Hughes, who had missed three games following the death of his younger brother, Justin.

After talking it over with his mother, Hughes decided late Thursday night to further honor his brother by going to Game 6.

“She wanted me to do what he would have wanted,” said Hughes, who in the days following his brother’s death had two teardrop tattoos inked under his left eye. “I’m basically here to help. I’m not here to disrupt anything.”

Hughes was activated and dressed but didn’t play.

He gave James an extra long hug before the opening tip, whispering something into his teammate’s ear.


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