It was the Pistons’ version of 24.

At halftime of yesterday’s Game 4 against the Philadelphia 76ers, I gave the team — and by extension, coach Flip Saunders — 24 minutes. Twenty-four minutes to show me that they were either still to be taken seriously as a championship contender, or a franchise about to undergo a bunch of upheaval. Twenty-four minutes that would, I surmised, go a long way toward either being the first of many dominoes to topple, or making the world right again at the Palace. Twenty-four minutes to show me that you can stare a 1-3 series deficit in the face, on the road, down by ten points, in an extremely hostile environment against an athletic, young, care-free team that was having entirely too much fun at the experience-rich Pistons’ expense. Twenty-four minutes to, perhaps, save their coach’s job — and their status as untradeable.

This is it, I thought. This might be the most important, crucial 24 minutes of basketball any Pistons team has played in years, because of its implications on their season — and their off-season.

And, like Jack Bauer, the Pistons ended up heroes. Test passed. For now.

It’s amazing how often the team that takes control at the start of the third quarter in any given NBA game ends up the winner. The Pistons had Game 1 halfway in their back pockets after the first two quarters, but a lightning-quick 8-0 run by Philly to begin the third turned a 51-38 laugher into a 51-46 dogfight in about 100 seconds. The game ebbed Philly’s way after that. In Game 2, the Pistons came out of the locker room for the third quarter refusing to let the Sixers back in after another impressive first half by Detroit. The Pistons won, in a cake walk. In Game 3, the Sixers ran away from the turnover-ridden Pistons to start the second half, and won in a landslide.

Last night, the Pistons scored the first 11 points of the second half, turning a ten-point deficit into a one-point lead. The Sixers then showed why they’re still not quite ready for prime time. And the Pistons again showed why they can be among the most maddening teams in sports.

Why, oh why, must this team dangle one foot off the ledge before yanking it back? Why must it give away momentum and energize its opponents? Why does it only feel urgency after creating it by its own lollygagging?

These questions will probably never be answered, because we’ve been asking them for four or five years now, with no real satisfaction.

Regardless, the series with these pesky 76ers is now knotted at two, and things would appear to be back in the Pistons’ control. They appear to have slapped the Philadelphians back into their rightful place as first round victims. They appear to have had their moment of angst for this round, and are prepared to move on — where they’ll no doubt putsy around and tempt danger in Round Two, natch.

The Sixers had the Pistons where they unanimously would have agreed would be lovely, had they been polled before the game: down by ten, the Wachovia Center rocking. Doubts, perhaps, creeping in. An uncertain summer looming. Seemingly drained of energy. Confidence waning.

That Maurice Cheeks’ team couldn’t close the deal — not even remotely close to closing the deal, in fact — is an indictment of his club’s inexperience and why the Pistons should now win the series in six games. And why Saunders’ job has been saved — for now.

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I was saddened by the death over the weekend of longtime Free Press sportswriter George Puscas, who passed away at the age of 81. Puscas was one of my inspirations to write about sports, and I had an awesome experience with him a couple years or so ago, that I’ll share later this week. Fitting and also bizarre that he’s being viewed at the same funeral home, at the same time, as former MSU football great Sonny Grandelius, who also died over the weekend at age 79.

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