Detroit 116, Chicago 109

AUBURN HILLS, Mich., March 9 (AP) -- For one scary moment Sunday, the Detroit Pistons thought they had lost a key player to a serious injury.

Instead, Tayshaun Prince bounced up looking better than ever, scoring 15 points in the final 17 minutes to help the Pistons clinch their seventh straight playoff berth with a 116-109 win over the Chicago Bulls.

"I couldn't feel my hand, and I knew that wasn't good,'' said Prince, who was injured on a third-quarter foul by Larry Hughes. "I thought I was going to have to shoot my free throws one-handed, but I got enough feeling back to make the shots, and then I hit a 3, so I figured I would keep going.''

When Prince crumpled to the ground, writhing in pain and grabbing at his right elbow, his teammates thought the worst.

"Tayshaun plays through everything - he's a soldier,'' said Chauncey Billups, who immediately began waving to the bench for the medical staff. "When I saw him on the floor like that, I knew something was bad wrong, so I wanted the trainers to get out there.''

Prince was down for several minutes before getting up, still shaking his hand. He hit both free throws, added a 3-pointer on Detroit's next possession and played the rest of the game.

"When he went down like that, I thought he had fractured a finger or something, but when I got out there and said his hand was numb, I figured it was just his funny bone,'' Pistons coach Flip Saunders said. "He was great after that, and I was afraid to take him out of the game, because I thought his arm might tighten up.''

Billups matched a season high with 34 points, while Richard Hamilton added 23 for Detroit, which ended a five-game losing streak against Chicago and prevented the Bulls from sweeping the season series for the first time since 1995-96.

"It was big to get a win against them,'' Billups said. "We just needed to take care of business against them.''

Ben Gordon led Chicago with 27 points and Luol Deng added 21, but it wasn't enough to prevent the Bulls from losing to a top Eastern Conference team for the second time in three nights. On Friday, they lost at Boston 116-93.

"Until our defense picks up, it is going to be a struggle for us,'' Chicago coach Jim Boylan said. "We had some many breakdowns that they were just able to drive by us. That was disappointing.''

The loss dropped Chicago to 25-38, 21 games behind Detroit in the Central Division standings, but one Bulls player thinks the gap is much closer than that.

"With our style of play, there's no reason we shouldn't have beaten that team,'' Joakim Noah said. "I think Detroit's a great team, but I still think we are better than them, really. I feel like we're a better team.''

Both teams came into the game short-handed, as Detroit All-Star Rasheed Wallace (ankle) missed his second straight game while Chicago's Chris Duhon was benched after missing the team's shootaround Sunday morning. Duhon dressed for the game, but as Boylan announced before tip-off, he did not play.

The Bulls' last lead was 17-16 late in the first quarter, and they trailed by as many as 15, but they narrowed the gap to one point twice in the fourth quarter.

Both times, though, Prince helped hold off the rally. The first time, his jumper put the Pistons up 93-90, then he set up a Jason Maxiell layup that gave Detroit a 96-92 edge with 6:25 to go. Rookie Rodney Stuckey's basket on Detroit's next possession made it a six-point game and Chicago never got within one possession again.

"Tay has had some big games for us in the last week,'' Saunders said. "I like to see him putting the ball on the floor, because he cannot only get to the basket, he can become a playmaker. Look at the six assists he had tonight.''

The Pistons finished the first quarter with a 13-2 run to go up by 10, then fought off a Chicago rally to take a 54-43 lead at halftime. Billups had 20 points in the half, while Gordon had 14 off the bench for the Bulls.

Notes: Chicago's Tyrus Thomas scored one point in 4 minutes in his first game after a two-game suspension for missing a practice last week. ... Saunders picked up a second-quarter technical foul for crossing midcourt to argue a call - a common occurrence for both teams in a game that saw 49 fouls and 69 free-throw attempts. ... Even with the bad ankle, Wallace did his traditional pregame dance in the Detroit huddle. ... Prince got two loud cheers after the injury - the first for making the first free throw despite obvious discomfort, and the second for changing out of his bloodstained jersey at center court before taking the second foul shot.

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