Bulls drop the ball


The lead was 19. The fans were in a frenzy. The Chicago Bulls were injecting some drama into this series.

Then the Detroit Pistons took it away.

Now, they're on the verge of their second straight sweep and another appearance in the conference finals.

"There was no panic situation for us," Detroit coach Flip Saunders said.

Instead, there was poise. There was a defense strangling the Bulls.

Tayshaun Prince scored 23 points and Chauncey Billups added 21, and the Pistons rallied from a 19-point deficit to beat the Bulls 81-74 on Thursday night in Game — of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Pistons, who swept Orlando in the first round, will try to wrap up this one Sunday at the United Center.

"We love a challenge, man," Billups said. "We love any time we can get 20,000 fans against us and we can start hearing the crowd boo us and the hecklers. We just take that challenge, man, and we love those situations. We thrive on those situations."

No NBA team has won a best-of-seven series after dropping the first three games, and only three major professional teams have done that: the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1975 New York Islanders and 2004 Boston Red Sox.

The other Eastern Conference semifinal resumes Saturday at New Jersey with Cleveland leading 2-0.

In the Western Conference semifinals, Utah, which leads 2-0, is at Golden State on Friday, and Phoenix is at San Antonio on Saturday in a series tied 1-1.

After blowing out the Bulls in the first two games at The Palace of Auburn Hills, the Pistons trailed 44-28 at halftime. They were down 49-30 early in the third and 55-38 midway through the quarter, and they certainly were hearing it from a raucous crowd.

But Prince, Billups and Wallace brought them back. Now, they're one win away from their fifth straight conference finals.

"Perseverance &

that's the type of team that we are," Wallace said. "No matter what the deficit is, we feel that we can come back from it."

Prince scored 13 points in the third quarter and Billups added 10. Wallace had a block in the closing seconds and hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to pull Detroit within 61-60. He then put the Pistons ahead with a jumper just under two minutes into the fourth period and added a 3-pointer that made it a five-point game midway through the quarter.

Wallace had 16 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks for Detroit, and Richard Hamilton scored 16 points.

Luol Deng led Chicago with 21 points, but was just 8-for-22 from the field. The Bulls were 28-of-83 (33.7 percent), almost the same percentage (33.6) they managed in the first two games, and again, they had no answer for the Pistons' zone.

Detroit used it most of the second half, and the Bulls shot 10-of-41, including 4-for-25 in the fourth quarter. And while Bulls coach Scott Skiles again downplayed its effectiveness, saying his team was "getting shots all over the place," Wallace had another view.

"That's just lying to themselves about things that we do," Wallace said.

Chicago came up short at the free throw line as well, missing 10 in the game, seven of those in the fourth quarter.

"We just lost on our homecourt, so this loss hurts a lot more than the other two, even though we played hard tonight and fought hard," Deng said. "I think we played better today than last two games, but it's still a loss and it still hurts."

The Bulls outscored the Pistons 22-6 over the final 7:15 of the second quarter, turning a 22-22 tie into a 44-28 halftime lead. Saunders showed his team clips of the first half during the break, and to Prince the problems were obvious.

"We didn't have fun in the first half, the ball wasn't moving," he said. "We just talked about moving the basketball. ... Once we made the adjustments we were in good shape."

With the score 55-38 midway through the third quarter, Detroit scored 12 straight points, eight by Prince.

Ben Gordon scored 16 points for Chicago, but was 4-for-16 from the field, while Kirk Hinrich had 13 points. Ben Wallace showed up at the arena about — hour, 15 minutes before tipoff and finished with five points, 12 rebounds and two blocks.

"It's the biggest loss of everybody's life because it's the last game," Gordon said. "We had a 19-point lead and they chipped away at it. It's tough to lose like that."

Notes: Ben Wallace would not say why he was late, telling reporters: "I don't have to explain myself to nobody." Skiles, who was not thrilled about the late arrival, said: "Somebody said the traffic was really bad at that time. I mean it usually is in Chicago. I really haven't given it a lot of thought. That wasn't high on my list of priorities." ... Detroit shot 4-of-18 in the second quarter and 6-of-20 in the fourth. But the Pistons went 13-of-22 in the third.

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