Pistons are at their best when backed into a corner
Posted: Friday May 26, 2006 11:57AM; Updated: Friday May 26, 2006 4:39PM
With Detroit at risk of losing the first two games of the East finals, Richard Hamilton helped cool Miami with 22 points in Game 2.
Ian Thomsen will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
A clash of cultures is less than a fortnight away, and nothing less than the soul of basketball is at stake. From the West will arrive an NBA Finalist -- either the Suns or the Mavericks -- running and leaping like gazelles out of Pat Riley's 1980s Lakers highlight films. From the East they will be met by an opponent as physical and disruptive as Riley's '90s-style Knicks.
These Eastern Conference finals are the ugly yang to the West's attractive yin. Why must it be so? Why can't the East's top teams strike a rhythm and stick with it as the Mavericks, Suns and Spurs have managed to do at the highest levels?
Two reasons: 1) These are old-fashioned power teams with big, physical front lines, and 2) the best team always sets the tone -- and in this case the Detroit Pistons are currently unable to make the game look easy.
Sure, they fooled us during the regular season while earning the best record in the league, but the Pistons have proved incapable of handling good times or the role of favorite. They were at their best during the 2004 NBA Finals, when nobody gave them a prayer and they blew past the Lakers in five games. They were at their worst recently in the second round against the Cavaliers. Having been anointed an elite team, the Pistons seemed to accept that as an invitation to stop playing like the blue-collar outfit that made them famous.
After surviving Games 6 and 7 to overcome a 3-2 deficit against Cleveland, the Pistons immediately squandered home court advantage in the conference finals by losing Tuesday to Miami. For Detroit, this was a good thing. It enabled the Pistons to get into their "comfort zone," which other teams would refer to as a state of panic. Coach Flip Saunders acknowledged that his team tends to play better when in trouble.
"The thing that you're always concerned about for your players in those back-against-the-wall-type games," said Saunders shortly before Game 2, "is that you'll still have your ability to go out and play loose and not all of a sudden tighten up when things don't go right." That's rarely been a problem for this team. They're like procrastinators who can't summon the urgency until they've played themselves into a corner.
The Pistons have always been an NBA peculiarity. While other teams are built around a couple of stars, the Pistons are a five-man outfit in which each player assumes equal importance. They tend to pull together when they need each other most.
Maybe they've been through so many hard times together over the years that they can play scared only when they're really, really scared. They've bailed themselves out of deficits so many times that they no longer worry about creating them.
When things appear to be going well for this team, that's when they're in danger. In the must-win atmosphere of Thursday's game, the Pistons built up an 18-point advantage, then habitually invited Miami to slowly work away its debt. "You start playing not to lose instead of playing to win," Saunders said. "You start playing not aggressive, you keep waiting for the clock to run out."
Over the final 1:46 Miami scored 17 points to narrow the loss to a frighteningly close 92-88. "It was a game of skirmishes," said Miami coach Pat Riley. "We didn't have enough good sustained periods of basketball where we could really get back into it."
With the understanding that they had no other option, the Pistons got big plays from Tayshaun Prince (24 points, including 10 in the final quarter), Richard Hamilton (22), Chauncey Billups (18) and Rasheed Wallace (16). BenWallace was especially effective in keeping offensive rebounds alive, completing passes to the open man, setting screens for teammates and, of course, defending Shaquille O'Neal. "Shaq presents a bunch of challenges," noted Wallace. "I've got a busted lip, a black eye."
This series is likely going to last seven games, and it's rarely going to be more beautiful than a bout of Greco-Roman wrestling. The key for the defending conference champs is to allot Miami a lead and then come back again and again. The worst thing that could happen for Detroit would be a blowout victory on the road in Game 3 on Saturday, in which case the Pistons might start feeling good about themselves again. Which would be bad. Very, very bad.