The 76ers were playing with house money. The odds against them were huge. All they could do was spin the wheel.

And hit the jackpot.

On a night when the Detroit Pistons were providing lottery tickets for their sellout crowd in the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Sixers scratched out a winning combination.

The Sixers' reward: A remarkable, 90-86 victory in Game 1 of their first-round, best-of-seven playoff series last night.

"If there was anybody outside this locker room who thought we could win, let me know," guard Lou Williams said.

There hasn't been anyone on record who said the Sixers, the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, could take the No. 2-seeded Pistons in this series. There have been lots and lots of people who said they could win a game. Maybe two.

But those are mostly the same people who thought the Sixers were more likely to win 20 games this season rather than the 40 they ended up with. Those are also mostly the same people who thought things looked darker and more foreboding when the Sixers dropped their final four games of the season, and seven of their last 10.

The early portion of last night's game seemed to dramatically underscore the Sixers' plight. They shot 9-for-23 in the first period, with Andre Iguodala going 1-for-6, including hammering a running dunk off the back rim, and Andre Miller going 0-for-2. By halftime, they were down 51-38.

And then coach Maurice Cheeks told his players - who easily could have been shattered by the Pistons and the raucous crowd - to live in the moment. Not the previous one. The one that was coming in the final periods.

The transformation was amazing. Maybe it was because they had done such things in the course of the season. Maybe it was because this, for several of them, was their first foray into the postseason and they simply didn't know any better. But they shot 57.1 percent in the second half and stunned the team Iguodala repeatedly has termed "the best team in the East, by far. "

When it was over, Miller had 20 points and six assists; Willie Green had 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting; Iguodala had 16 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, gamely battling through a 4-for-15 shooting performance.

Also when it was over, Pistons coach Flip Saunders already was grimly approaching the Game 2 meeting that comes Wednesday night.

"What we've got to do is get the fire back," Saunders said. "It is a 'must win' game for us. "

Who would have thought the Pistons, who won 59 games during the season, would be in that position?

And, as has been true all season, there were significant contributions from all sorts of Sixers. Samuel Dalembert struggled with 2-for-10 shooting, but took 10 rebounds and blocked four shots. Thaddeus Young, awarded the start at power forward, had 10 points. And Reggie Evans turned in one of his best efforts with 11 points and 14 rebounds.

How ever Cheeks phrased his halftime words, the nervousness and indecisiveness of the first two quarters disappeared.

In their place came the raging Sixers.

"We were a little nervous, doing things that were speeding the game up," Cheeks said. "The second half, we settled down. We scored the first eight points [of the third period], and when we did that we got our confidence back up. When that happened, we got our running game going. You make some shots, you get a stop here, a stop there and your confidence gets a little better. The biggest factor was keeping guys in front of us [defensively], not giving up wide-open threes. "

When Cheeks was asked whether his young team had grown up in this one, he said, "No question, they grew up in the second half. "

They still didn't do it the easy way, falling behind by 15 after their strong third-period start. But they did do it.

"We've been that way many times," Cheeks said. "We clawed our way back, closed the gap. "

Evans even unfurled a heretofore unseen aspect of his game, knocking in a 17-footer with 4:28 remaining. Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups combined to miss three free throws in the second half, and the Pistons, who looked in the first half as if they might win easily, shot a weak 28.9 percent after intermission.

Rasheed Wallace had 24 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks but Hamilton and Billups - one of the best backcourts in the league - combined for just eight assists.

"We're disappointed, we're upset, we're mad, all those things," Saunders said. "The way we play, not turning the ball over, grinding things out, we should win those games. We didn't. [The Sixers] played hard. It's not that we lost the game; they beat us. There is no question about it. "

But the idea of playing with house money, the idea that the Sixers had nothing to lose, didn't resonate with Miller.

"We've got something to lose, just like they do," he said. "We're here to play."