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Identity crisis

Win or lose vs. Heat, Pistons must find themselves

Posted: Wednesday May 31, 2006 9:58AM; Updated: Thursday June 1, 2006 6:02PM
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After combining for 64 regular-season wins, the Pistons and Flip Saunders seem to be falling apart in the playoffs.
After combining for 64 regular-season wins, the Pistons and Flip Saunders seem to be falling apart in the playoffs.
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Win or lose Game 5 on Wednesday, the Pistons are a contender in transition. While trying to figure out who they are, they also are forced to try to fend off Miami for the Eastern crown, but the truth is they can't accomplish the latter without resolving the former. No matter how the series plays out, things in Detroit are going to change -- whether it takes place miraculously over the next week or during the sober offseason to follow.

Coach Flip Saunders, long known as an offensive innovator, will have to apply the same instincts and guile to the defensive end. While the Pistons have forsaken the singular approach to defense that led them to successive NBA Finals, don't assume that the Pistons have fallen 3-1 to Miami because Saunders impulsively ran them off the road and into a ditch. His philosophy was installed with the full backing of management. Indeed, team president Joe Dumars shared his vision.

"We spend more time on executing," Dumars told me in January, when the Pistons were far and away the best team in the league. "I think that gets lost, that we execute really well. We run stuff and we get good shots. That's a testament to Flip realizing that if we had a shortcoming, that was it. He's turned that around immediately."

Now, though, Saunders' emphasis on offense is being criticized in light of the Heat routinely shooting a scorching 50 percent from the field against the demoralized Pistons' defense. Just a few months ago Saunders was being lauded for striking an exquisite balance between offense and defense. "I felt when we first signed him that we can bring our offense up to another level, if we can start to execute on offense as well as we execute on defense," Dumars said at that time. "Now our guys know that scoring is just as important as getting a big stop. It's not unlike Tony Dungy going to the Indianapolis Colts: They already had the offense, so he brought a sense of urgency on the defensive end. We were the opposite: We had the sense of urgency on defense, so we needed to open up the offense."

The problem is that both the Cavaliers -- before squandering a 3-2 lead in the previous round -- and the Heat have ramped up their defenses while the Pistons have failed to create the ball pressure that leads to easy baskets. That has put more pressure on their half-court offense, which is being stifled by the improved postseason defenses they're facing. And the absence of easy baskets has been critical, for while the rest of the league -- even Shaq's Heat -- has been running the floor, the Pistons have looked like they're standing in place.