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Pistons tether Hawks, discover pleasant surprise after game

The Pistons have lost some games they should have won lately, but they weren't about to take the Hawks lightly. Sure, Detroit handled Atlanta pretty easily the last time they met, but this is a team that already embarrassed the Pistons once this year, sneaking by with a one-point win last month.

As such, when the Hawks jumped out to a 12-6 lead in the first quarter, it wasn't too surprising to see the Boys in Blue flip a switch and finish the first quarter on a 24-8 run. They kept the pressure on in the second quarter, and by halftime the Pistons were up 53-34, nursing a 19-point lead.

I'm as much for maintaining defensive intensity as the next guy, but don't let the final score worry you. Yes, the Pistons coasted down the stretch, but it took an 11-2 run by the Hawks in the final three minutes to cut the deficit to seven points -- Atlanta was never, ever a threat to regain control of this game.

Rasheed Wallace scores against the Hawks Rasheed Wallace led the way with 26 points, clearly making a concerted early in the game to establish his presence down low. It paid off, too -- he finished the game 6-of-10 from two-point range (3-of-8 from beyond the arc) and went to the line five times, making every free throw. You hear me, Laimbeer and Kelser say it all the time, but he's just so freaking long that I don't think there's anyone in the league that can consistently guard him down low.

Here's something else to watch for -- when he gets the ball down low and holds onto it long enough to elicit the familiar "Sheeeeeeed" cheer from the crowd, he always, always ends up shooting the ball. I noticed that earlier this year, and I swear, I've never seen him pass up a shot. Not that I'm complaining at all -- I just got done telling you he's virtually unstoppable down there -- it's just a bit humorous once you start looking for it.

Tayshaun Prince lost his shot for about a month not too long ago, but he's certainly found it over the past week. He placed second on the team Monday night with 18 points on 9-14 shooting. In his last six games, he's shot 55% from the field, and in his last five he's averaged averaged 19.0 points per game.

Chauncey Billups had a very un-Chauncey-like game, waiting until the fourth quarter to score 10 of his 14 points. He finished with just five assists. In fact, Rip Hamilton also finished 14 and 5, but he went 5-11 from the field, compared to Chauncey's 5-17 effort. And, while we're recapping just about everyone's performance, we may as well not that Ben Wallace bounced back from a string of uninspired games to grab 13 boards, force four steals and block three shots in just 31 minutes.

Tony Delk, incidentally, didn't play at all, presumably still bothered by the sore hamstring that first appeared on Saturday. That meant extra time for Lindsey Hunter, who failed to score (which wasn't hard, since he didn't attempt a single shot) in 10 minutes but had two assists and was on the court when the Pistons pulled away late in the first quarter and early in the second.

As for the Hawks, they have some interesting young players in Josh Smith and (believe it or not) Zaza Pachulia, whom my fiancee pointed out bares a striking resemblence to Rocky Balboa after a fight. Smith only scored 14 (which is actually about five about his season average) but showed his improved range by going 2-4 from three-point land. Pachulia had a double-double with 11 points and 11 boards. He may be on his third team in as many years, but he just turned 22 last month and should have a long future in this league.

Even though the Pistons literally had their way with the Hawks for most of the night, it didn't cause any goodwill to be lost, as Hawks head coach Mike Woodson, who won a title as an assistant with Detroit back in 2004, and starting forward Al Harrington had nothing but love for Detroit after the game:

"It's going to be interesting to see how it carries over in the playoffs, but I predict they'll win the title," [Woodson] said.

"Obviously, they are the champions again," Harrington said. "I'm a big fan of Detroit, so hopefully they win it again."

Oh yeah, one other thing happened that's worth mentioning -- with the win, the Pistons clinched the Central Division title. It was kind of like a finding the prize in an old box of cereal -- the Pistons have had a double-digit lead in the division for so long that everyone knew it was coming someday, but no one paid close enough attention to realize it was about to happen. But, what do you know, the final horn sounds and, boom, there it is, sitting in a bowl of milk, a second consecutive division title, the team's fourth in five years.

"I didn't know until someone just told me," Tayshaun Prince said. "I guess that shows you where our minds are right now."

The win put Detroit two steps up coach Flip Saunders' pyramid.

"First, you have to make the playoffs, which we did a couple weeks ago, and then you have to win the division," he said. "Now we have to get homecourt in the East, homecourt in the league, and then we have to win the championship."

In case you're counting, the magic number for clinching the East is nine.Some people struggle with the concept of "magic numbers" -- it just means that any combination of Detroit wins and Miami losses that add up to nine will clinch the top seed in the East for the Pistons.

Pistons 91, Hawks 84 recap [ESPN]
Box score [ESPN]