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Falling apart at the seams

Pistons have gone from selfless to selfish in months

Posted: Wednesday May 31, 2006 11:03AM; Updated: Wednesday May 31, 2006 10:07PM
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With their season crumbling around them, Pistons players have been quick to criticize everyone.
With their season crumbling around them, Pistons players have been quick to criticize everyone.
John Biever/SI

In these feel-good NBA playoffs, with buzzer-beaters, overtime games and high-scoring duels, who would have thought the Detroit Pistons would be the only downer? The playoffs are supposed to be the Pistons' domain, the portion of the season when the pretty boys are quickly sent home and the blue-collar, team-oriented men from Motown get down to serious business.

Instead, the Pistons have been playing games, and we're not talking about playoff games. They've been playing mental games with themselves, trying to find and maintain the hunger and selflessness that took them to the last two NBA Finals and won them a championship two years ago. Their resolve weakened against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round, and it nearly cost them everything before they recovered to smother the Cavs in Game 7. They drifted back into their lackadaisical ways in the Eastern Conference finals, and find themselves behind 3-1 going into Wednesday's Game 5 against Miami.

The Pistons we used to know would have had a decent chance to climb out of this hole and get back to the Finals, but these aren't the Pistons we used to know. This team is already dead, just waiting for the Heat to close the coffin on Wednesday or in Game 6 in Miami. The shame is not that Detroit is losing to Miami but the way the Pistons are doing it. They are lost in a sea of finger-pointing and bickering through the media, focusing as much on finding blame and ducking responsibility as they are on stopping Miami's Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal.

Suddenly the players are second-guessing coach Flip Saunders as if they were talk-show callers. According to center Ben Wallace, Saunders hasn't been emphasizing defense enough at practice. Forward Tayshaun Prince has questioned Saunders' substitution patterns, saying that guard Lindsay Hunter should have gotten more minutes off the bench in Game 3. Forward Antonio McDyess has criticized Saunders' play selection, saying that the Pistons should concentrate on getting the ball inside more to Rasheed Wallace, who hasn't helped things by reverting to the bad Rasheed of his Portland days, whining at referees, ignoring timeout huddles and generally acting like an 11-year-old instead of an 11-year veteran.

None of the issues with Saunders were a problem, of course, when the Pistons were sailing to the best regular-season record in the league. Back then, the players were praising their new coach as a breath of fresh air after the restrictive Larry Brown. But suddenly, now that they're losing, the coach is a dunce? Saunders, no doubt insecure because he's never had much playoff success, has responded to his players through the media, blaming them for the defensive shortcomings and openly criticizing Prince's offensive performance.

It doesn't really matter who's right. What matters is that the Pistons were supposed to be above all this. For the last two years they have been held up as a shining example of selflessness and team play, the antithesis of the me-oriented teams that are so prevalent in pro sports. Their Finals victory over the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers two years ago was a textbook case of a cohesive, self-sacrificing unit beating a team led by a pair of egomaniacs. But now the Pistons have become just like the teams they used to feast on, turning on each other when times get tough. The way they're acting, they might as well be the Knicks.

Maybe the Pistons are out of sorts because they realize that they've lost their edge, that this time they won't be able to flip a switch and escape the jam they've created for themselves. Maybe it's just too much to expect a team to maintain indefinitely the kind of all-for-one esprit de corps that they once had. But it's sad to see them go out this way, exchanging looks of annoyance with each other when a pass goes astray, searching individually for someone to blame instead of searching collectively for a solution to their problems. They are the Pistons, after all, and we remember when they were so much bigger than that. If only they did.