On thin ice

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – He showed up for his postgame press conference wearing a sly grin and a Detroit Red Wings jersey.

"I figured since there was a lockout [in the NHL] and there weren't any [job] openings, I'd wear this shirt."

Ah, Larry Brown. He'll drive ownership and fans crazy with his ill-timed dalliances with every open job this side of the Mid-American Conference. But the man has a way of laughing last.

Even if there is no one left to laugh with him.

Brown had a heck of a day Tuesday, linked by numerous media reports to the Cleveland Cavaliers' presidency (a transaction he refuses to really deny) even as his Detroit Pistons are in the middle of the Eastern Conference finals.

The move has turned fan passion in Motown against Brown, and placed him in the middle of a media storm all day.

And then, on Tuesday night, Brown's team went out and pulled one of his classic "Play the Right Way" efforts to beat Miami 106-96 and even the series at two games apiece. Game 5 is Thursday in Florida.

Play the Right Way?

How about a first half featuring 17 assists and zero turnovers.

How about a team showing a champion's heart, shrugging off two dreadful finishes, endless talk about that disloyal coach and the dominance of Dwyane Wade.

How about a series, a season, seemingly renewed.

On a day full of perfect storms, Larry Brown pitched a darn near perfect game.

This is what it is to play for, to employ, to root for Larry Brown. He is the girlfriend who can't stop flirting with other people. You swear you're through – until she knocks you out in a party dress.

"Obviously," shrugged Tayshaun Prince, "we've been in this situation before."

Midseason, Brown's stated affection for coaching the New York Knicks led to a week of "Larry takes Manhattan" stories. "We put that aside as well," Prince said. "The stakes [now] are higher, Eastern Conference finals, top-rated team in the East. But we have a lot of mature guys on the team."

Or as Rasheed Wallace put it less eloquently: "Don't ask about that Cleveland [expletive]. We don't care."

Others, perhaps, do. When the Brown-is-leaving story began to circulate a week ago, Detroit fans blamed the media for causing a stir. By Tuesday, sentiment had swung the other way. Art Regner, co-host of the drive-time sports talk show on WXYT, estimates that call-ins were 80-20 against Brown.

"A complete reverse from last week," Regner said.

Sports radio stations in Detroit had contests giving away Piston tickets for the most humiliating Brown-inspired poems. There were a significant number of boos when Brown was introduced pregame to the home crowd.

It is clear to everyone that the Brown Era here will end soon. He was a hired gun brought in to win, and he delivered one championship. A second is almost more than anyone can ask. There won't be any tears shed one way or the other.

"Happy trails to him," said Piston Elden Campbell. "It's a business. Whatever makes him happy. He's here now and that's what our focus is on."

And on Tuesday, Detroit's focus was considerable.

The Pistons took care of the ball better, passed better, defended better, rebounded better and maintained their poise down the stretch better than they had in consecutive losses. They even defended Wade a little better, "holding" the dynamic guard to 28 points.

"I thought it was a great team effort," Chauncey Billups said.

Isn't that how Larry Brown does it?

Postgame, the coach extended an olive branch with a bad joke and a Steve Yzerman shirt. On Monday he let the Detroit Free Press follow along as he took his son to a suburban batting cage.

Both were nice, savvy PR moves.

But drops in the goodwill bucket compared to winning.

"Well," said Brown, swimming in his hockey jersey. "We're in much better shape than we were the other night."