ATLANTA - The key to winning in the NBA playoffs is no big mystery to coach Doug Collins. He knows a team must be able to score with some regularity on the inside, and it must be able to defend around its own basket.
In the opener of their Eastern Conference series with the Atlanta Hawks, Collins' Detroit Pistons were not able to do either.
Atlanta's 7-foot-2 Dikembe Mutombo, burned the Pistons for 26 points, a career playoff high. And the NBA's defensive player of the year kept Detroit from doing much offensive damage around the basket.
The result: Atlanta overcame a slow start to beat the Pistons 89-75 Friday night and take the lead in the best-of-5 series heading to the second game Sunday night at the Omni.
"If you watch the NBA playoffs, it's not a real complicated game," said Collins. "I just think at the end of the game, their physical side wore us down. It's like a heavyweight fight. As the fight wears on, the bigger man usually wins."
The Pistons focused on stopping Atlanta's guards Steve Smith and Mookie Blaylock, which left Mutombo and Christian Laettner open on the inside. The Pistons started physical Rick Mahorn in hopes of rattling Mutombo, but the Hawks center immediately set the tone by driving strong for a hoop and drawing a foul from Mahorn for a three-point play.
Mahorn left after three minutes, not to return, and Terry Mills and Theo Ratliff spent the rest of the night trying futilely to guard Mutombo, who made 10 of 14 shots and also hit all six attempts from the foul line.
"I told myself as long as I could control the ball in my hands and don't turn the ball over, we're going to win this ballgame," Mutombo said. "I knew they would try to double-team me or leave me on my man one-on-one and I could take him. My hook shot was feeling great."
All of which leaves the Pistons with a defensive dilemma heading to Game 2.
Do they continue focusing on the Atlanta backcourt and hope Mutombo cools off? Or do they clog the lane in hopes of slowing Mutombo and Laettner (who had 18 points) and risk leaving Smith and Blaylock open on the outside?
"They have to go back to the drawing board and make another decision," Smith said. "That's what's so good about our team. We have so many guys who can play. It doesn't matter who gets the ball. This time, it was Dikembe and Christian on the inside."
The Pistons, on the other hand, must get some help for Grant Hill, who was probably the best player on the floor in the first game but wore down noticeably as the night went on. Hill led Detroit with 20 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists, but he was held scoreless in the final quarter as the Hawks broke open a tight game.
"What happens, unfortunately for us, is I have to make Grant Hill work so hard to create so much for us that he got tired," Collins said. "He double teamed in the post, he rotated out, he had to try to get into our offense, he had to try to create."
The Hawks had no one player who could guard Hill - Tyrone Corbin was especially ineffective as the Pistons forward blew by him time and time again with superior quickness - but Atlanta switched up its coverages in the second half and gradually tired Hill out.
"We didn't want to give them any easy baskets," Mutombo said. "We wanted them to work very hard for their points and defensively, I think we did a helluva."
DETROIT (75)- Hill 8-19 4-5 20, Thorpe 4-13 1-2 9, Mahorn 0-0 0-0 0, Dumars 7-16 2-3 17, Hunter 3-9 1-2 9, Mills 4-10 2-4 11, Long 2-4 0-0 4, McKie 2-3 0-0 4, Ratliff 0-0 1-2 1, Curry 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-74 11-18 75.
ATLANTA (89)- Corbin 3-9 4-4 11, Laettner 5-13 8-8 18, Mutombo 10-14 6-6 26, Smith 6-13 4-4 17, Blaylock 5-14 1-2 13, Henderson 2-3 0-0 4, Hancock 0-1 0-0 0, Recasner 0-0 0-0 0, James 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 31-68 23-24 89.
Detroit 18251517- 75
Atlanta 20192228- 89
3-Point goals- Detroit 4-17 (Hunter 2-6, Mills 1-3, Dumars 1-6, Long 0-1, McKie 0-1), Atlanta 4-15 (Blaylock 2-5, Corbin 1-4, Smith 1-4, Laettner 0-1, James 0-1). Fouled out- None. Rebounds- Detroit 44 (Hill 14), Atlanta 45 (Mutombo 15). Assists- Detroit 15 (Hill 7), Atlanta 12 (Laettner 4). Total fouls- Detroit 21, Atlanta 18. Technicals- Detroit illegal defense 2, Corbin. Flagrant fouls- Mills. A- 15,795 (16,378).