Yes, yes it was.
Admit it: for a while, you were doubting if this roster was even capable of feeling a sense of urgency, right? I sure was. After wasting two opportunities to clinch the series, the Pistons had to win on the road in a hostile environment.
I didn't even want to think about what would happen were the Pistons to back into a Game 7 situation. Yes, it would have been at the Palace, but the entire sporting world would have been rooting for the Bulls, if for no other reason than to witness both an upset and a collapse of epic proportions.
Fortunately, we don't have to contemplate such a scenario anymore, as the Pistons amazingly retained their focus the entire game to pick up the elusive fourth win. Down goes Chicago, down goes Ben Wallace, down goes having to listen to an entire summer of comparisons to the 2004 Yankees.
How'd they do it? By getting back to the basics. Detroit's defense (including a very healthy dose of good ol' man-to-man) frustrated Chicago to no end. The Pistons clamped down on the Bulls' big three of Luol Deng (17 points), Ben Gordon (19 points) and especially Kirk Hinrich (11 points on 3-13 shooting).
Hinrich did finish with 11 assists but committed five fouls, allowing Chauncey Billups overcome a poor shooting night of his own (3-12 from the field) by helping him get to the line 14 times. Chauncey never missed from the stripe and finished with 21 points.
With so much attention being paid to Chicago's three "stars," P.J. Brown got loose for 20 points in the first half. It was frustrating to watch but Detroit weathered the storm: guys like Brown may get lucky for a couple of quarters now and again, but it was hardly a surprise when he was held scoreless after halftime.
While this series has largely been described as a battle of the backcourts, the Pistons never would have won this game were it not for outstanding play by their bigs: Tayshaun Prince had 17 and nine, coming through with bucket after bucket when it mattered most with eight points in the fourth. Chris Webber scored just five points but grabbed nine boards, including four offensive, in just 23 minutes. His counterpart Antonio McDyess added five points with 10 boards in 25 minutes.
But perhaps most impressive was the performance by Rasheed Wallace, who scored 16 with 13 boards and two blocks -- not to mention two consecutive scores waved off (one for a loose ball foul, the other for traveling). But Rasheed more or less kept his cool, and Flip Saunders' leap of faith of leaving Rasheed in the game despite foul trouble paid off on both ends of the court. He still spends a little too much time around the three-point arc for my tastes (he finished 2-8 from long distance), but he was completely locked in for all 39 minutes he played.
As for the Bulls, well, there's plenty of reason for this team to feel good about itself as it enters the offseason. While I'm not sold on their undersized backcourt as a franchise cornerstone, Gordon and Hinrich are certainly capable of having their moments. But even more so, I'm walking away from this more convinced than ever that Deng is on his way to being a star.
No matter how sympathetic you may still be toward Ben Wallace, it's unavoidable to face the Bulls in a playoff series without wondering if his $60 million contract was really money well spent. He spent the entire series hobnobbing with his former buds before and after games even as his current teammates were getting obliterated on the court. And then, before two of the three most important games of the year, he was 15 minutes late to the arena. I don't care how bad traffic might have been, taken as a whole these weren't the acts of a true leader.
Had he come through on the court it might have been possible to overlook the poor example he set for his younger teammates in the locker room, but that didn't happen, either. What was his line in Chicago's final game of the year? Six points (including just 2-8 from the free-throw line), seven boards, 29 minutes. Detroit, on the other hand, got 10 points and 19 boards from their center position.
When the Bulls first signed Wallace, I predicted he'd give them two good years before he'd start stealing their money. I may have been one year too generous. Webber was routinely beating Ben to rebounds on Thursday, and Webber can hardly move. Ben needs an offensive-minded running mate in the post, and soon. You have to imagine Bulls GM John Paxson will make it happen this summer between free agency, trades or using the Knicks' first-round pick, but then again, most of us assumed he would've tried harder to address the need last year at this time, as well.
In any event, before Game 1, most of us were predicting a long series, and that's what we got, not to mention the re-kindling of a classic rivalry. And not to disrespect the Nets or the Cavs, but I really think this was the most difficult hurdle in Detroit's path to the NBA Finals -- though here's to hoping the players don't get caught looking as far ahead as I am.