DETROIT (AP) – The Detroit Pistons had to get past more than just the Miami Heat to have a chance to defend their title in the NBA Finals.

They had to respond to reports and rumors about coach Larry Brown’s next move; deal with his two health-related absences; experience one of the worst brawls in U.S. sports history and the fallout from it; and rise above a tendency to be complacent. “It’s been a crazy season,” said Chauncey Billups, the MVP of last year’s finals.

Detroit extended its season – and Brown’s Hall of Fame career – with an 88-82 victory over the Heat on Monday night in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

In a matchup of the past two champions, the Pistons will face the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.

“After all the things that have transpired over the year, it’s all worth it,” Brown said.

The Pistons did not practice Tuesday and were to travel that night to San Antonio, which will also host Game 2 and, if necessary, Games 6 and 7.

As much as they were pushed by Miami, reserve forward Antonio McDyess expects to the Pistons to be tested even more by the Spurs.

“They’re better defensively, and they have a lot more scorers because all five guys can score,” McDyess said. “It’s going to be tough.”

The Pistons had to be tough-minded to deflect distractions created by their mercurial coach, who was slow to shoot down the belief during the season that he would leave this summer to coach the New York Knicks.

During the playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers asked for permission to speak with Brown about being their president of basketball operations, and Brown was willing to talk with them.

“Everybody has speculations,” guard Richard Hamilton said.

“But the one thing with us is we know that we have a great group of guys in our locker room, we have a great coaching staff and you really can’t believe what people say outside of that.”

Brown repeatedly has said – for months – if he’s healthy enough to coach next year, he wants to continue leading the Pistons after turning 65 this fall.

“We’ve just got good guys in that locker room that have a lot of pride, and I think character has a way of handling obstacles and adversity,” Brown said.

“That’s what this team is about.”

The Pistons were associated, for much of the season, with the infamous melee on Nov. 19 with their fans and the Indiana Pacers. The ugly series of events were replayed on television, written about in newspapers and talked about on the radio so much that the team became annoyed by the story that wouldn’t go away.

Late Monday night in Miami, Hamilton said it was all worth it.

“This is very rewarding,” he said. “We went through a whole lot this year with the brawl; with guys being out; guys being hurt; Coach being sick and things like that. It’s a great feeling because we all came together, we all stuck together and we all had each other’s back. To be in this situation again, whew, it’s a great feeling.”

The Pistons also found out what it was like to be on top after thriving as a challenger en route to the franchise’s third title last season. They didn’t always respond well, putting together some effort-lacking performances and failing to play unselfishly on offense and aggressively on defense.

“A lot of times we lost games because we didn’t realize how hard people were coming at us,” Billups said. “We got everybody’s best game.”

When it mattered most, the Pistons were at their best and played with the poise of a savvy champion.

“I am so proud of these guys and the incredible job they did,” said Detroit’s president of basketball operations Joe Dumars, who won two titles as a guard with the Pistons before leading the franchise to another title last year as an executive. “This team has shown tremendous heart all year.”

Detroit had to show its mettle in the conference finals, rallying from a 3-2 deficit with a win at home and a rare road victory in a Game 7.

“It’s a great feeling after pretty much everybody was counting us out,” NBA Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace said. “To have an opportunity to defend this title is what it’s all about. We just wanted to give ourselves a shot to repeat, and now we’ve got a chance.”

AP-ES-06-07-05 1805EDT


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