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Posted: Friday May 23, 2008 1:59PM; Updated: Friday May 23, 2008 6:51PM
Ian Thomsen Ian Thomsen >
INSIDE THE NBA

Weekly Countdown: Here's why the Pistons are capable of winning it all

Story Highlights
  • A better bench and more comfortable coach are fueling the Pistons' run
  • Can any current Pistons player make the case to be a Hall of Famer?
  • Reasons to lean toward Michael Beasley with the No. 1 pick in the draft
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Flip Saunders has used his bench effectively this season -- a big factor in his development as coach of a championship contender.
Flip Saunders has used his bench effectively this season -- a big factor in his development as coach of a championship contender.
AP
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5 Reasons why the Pistons can be champions

5. The list. "At the beginning of the year,'' Detroit coach Flip Saunders said, "we had our first meeting, and I had each guy tell me what they could do to help us win a championship. I got all those things typed up and I keep them in my coat pocket for every game. I keep it there as a reminder, in case I ever have to pull it out to them: 'Hey, this is what you told me you were going to do.' "

Each player declared what he could do to help the Pistons win their first title since 2003-04. They spoke in front of each other, and it became a personal contract among the players and their coach.

"I'll read it before games to see the mentality of where our players were at the beginning of the year, to see where they're at [now],'' Saunders said. "Chauncey [Billups] talked about not turning down shots -- because I get on him sometimes that he turns down shots -- and knowing our game plan as far as following through on that game plan. And 'Sheed [Wallace] talked about the winner that he is, that he's not going to let his team down, that they can follow him.

"It was good that we sat in there and talked about it. You could see where they were coming from and what they thought. Jason Maxiell said, 'I'm going to bring energy, I'm going to make free throws' -- and there's a guy that improved his free-throw shooting dramatically [to 63.3 percent] from a year ago [48 percent]. It was a contract that they gave not to me but to their teammates. It was about accountability.''

And?

"They have lived up to it,'' Saunders said. "At times, everyone's going to veer away a little bit. But because of that [meeting], our players have been more vocal with each other, about guys not doing things, and letting them know this is what you have to do.''

4. Forget the switch. "They've always talked about the switch,'' Saunders said. "About being able to turn the switch on, turn the heat on, and go from playing average to all of a sudden playing great.''

Detroit has reached the Eastern Conference finals for a sixth straight year, a streak last achieved by Magic Johnson's Lakers in the 1980s. And yet the accusation endures that the Pistons routinely take nights off, that arrogance gets the best of them. That suspicion results from their losses as the No. 1 seed in the last two conference finals, when they yielded home-court advantage to the eventual champion Heat in 2005-06 and then blew a 2-0 lead last year to the Cavaliers, a demoralizing loss to a team the Pistons believe was inferior.

"I saw someone say, 'They've turned the switch on and off this year,' " said Pistons president Joe Dumars, who is in his 11th conference finals with Detroit as a player (five) or head executive. "Well, we won 59 games and had the second-best record in the league, so it couldn't have been 'off' that many times. Unless you thought we were capable of winning 70 games. Which I didn't.''

The idea that the Pistons flick their effort off and back on again infuriates Dumars.

"Sometimes I think we are under a different set of rules,'' he said. "We lose a game and, well, 'Those guys didn't show up, and the switch was off.' And you see other people lose games, and there is such a different standard. Are we ever allowed to lose a game where some other team just plays better than us?''

The point I'm comfortable making about the Pistons is that they've played 99 postseason games over the previous five years. As tiring as the regular season can be, they've averaged an additional 20 games per year, and those games obviously have been more demanding than, say, a December homestand against Chicago and Charlotte.

Dumars insists that Detroit's six-year run of postseason excellence is proof that the proverbial lights are always on.

"You're asking these guys to go out there and play at an elite level every second of every game, and that's just not going to happen in this league,'' he said. "There are some nights that teams are going to have your number, and they're going to make shots and you're not, and you're going to come up short. To do what we've done, sitting here six straight years, you're not turning switches off a whole lot. And so that sometimes seems to be more of the emphasis than the six straight years we've done this, and it's like, Are you kidding me?''

3. The bench. So how did the Pistons reclaim their inspiration after surrendering a trip to the NBA Finals last year?

"You've got to be truthful and honest and make an unvarnished assessment of your team,'' Dumars said. "Here's the conclusion that I came to: that we were playing our starters too many minutes. We did not have enough youth and athleticism on our team, and we weren't deep enough. So I sat down with Flip and talked about how we have to cut our starters' minutes back. If we want to continue at this pace, that's what we have to do.

"The second thing is -- and this one's on me -- I've got to make sure that we go out and get these athletic, high-energy guys, because that was missing as well when I watched us play. Not only were the starters tired, but when we turned to the bench, it wasn't to high-energy guys. I don't think we could have gotten back here without cutting those minutes and adding those guys. And then you've got to make a commitment to playing them.''

The corners of the Pistons' foundation -- Billups, Richard Hamilton, Wallace and Tayshaun Prince -- averaged 3.1 fewer minutes this season. The young bench produced 29.7 points per game, a five-year high. Maxiell and rookie Rodney Stuckey have provided the energy the Pistons needed, with Stuckey's minutes as a long-sought backup to Billups especially important.

"He's extremely athletic, very talented and very instinctive in how he plays,'' Saunders said of Stuckey. "I'm very geared to a point-guard system. I give the ball to the point guard and let him make decisions. The other four guys have their jobs as far as what they do, but that point guard makes the decisions to set everybody else up. That maybe facilitated his progress a lot, because he couldn't go hide. He had to make decisions.''

2. The coach. There have been questions the last two years about Saunders' ability to relate to Detroit's veteran players who knew more about winning in the playoffs than he did. Those questions don't seem so relevant anymore. Things can change quickly in this league, but the marriage between Saunders and his team appears much stronger than the last two postseasons.

"If you've never been in this type of environment before,'' Dumars said of the annual pursuit of a championship, "then you have to get used to it. It's his third year of being in this type of environment, and any team other than San Antonio would have thought, Wow, [look at] what kind of success we've had -- 64 wins [two years ago] and [53] wins [last year] and 59 wins this year. But you have to get used to being in that environment where you hear, 'You guys didn't make it to the NBA Finals? What happened?' A lot of other organizations aren't used to that, and what we claim as success here is a lot different than what most people claim is success.

"So without a doubt, Flip has gotten a whole lot better here as opposed to when he first walked through the door. That's no knock on him, that's just reality.''

My take on Saunders is that he earned respect by integrating Stuckey, Maxiell, rookie guard Arron Afflalo and third-year forward Amir Johnson into the rotation. Saunders coached Billups when both were at Minnesota in 2000-02, but the rest of the Pistons viewed its new coach as a kind of rookie. There was no area in which he could improve a peaking roster that had reached successive NBA Finals under Larry Brown. It was too easy to regard him as a caretaker rather than a leader.

This year, however, Saunders improved the team by working the young players into the rotation and elevating their play to a level of championship contention. The older players needed help off the bench, Saunders provided it for them, and the Pistons wouldn't be back in the conference finals without him. He needed something to do, some way to make an impact, and the young bench provided that opportunity.

Over the second half of the year, Saunders began to bench his young players after making a single turnover -- getting them ready for the high demands they would face during the playoffs, when one error can ruin the season. It says a lot about Saunders' coaching ability that Stuckey, a rookie who missed the first seven weeks of this season with a broken left hand, was able to come off the bench in Game 2 of the conference finals Thursday and play a terrific 17 minutes (13 points, three assists) in relief of Billups while making one big play after another to help the Pistons even the series and seize home-court advantage.

"We were playing in Atlanta [in February] and I was on Stuckey pretty hard,'' Saunders said. "We called a timeout and he goes, 'You're yelling at me, but you're not on Chauncey all the time.' And I told him, 'That's because I was on Chauncey six years ago.' "

1. The drive. Detroit and Boston appear to be evenly matched, but I give the Pistons the edge in two areas. They know each other far better than do the Celtics -- as proved by Boston's difficulties in finding a meaningful postseason role for Ray Allen -- and that will be a crucial advantage as the series progresses. I also think the Pistons will emerge as the hungrier team, not only because they've wasted opportunities to win championships the past two years, but also because of the commitments they've made all season to reach this stage of the playoffs. They (as only the Spurs can empathize) understood how difficult it is to win a championship and that few outsiders believed they had it in them, but they went for it anyway. The Celtics may yet prove me wrong, but I'm thinking that Detroit has more to lose in this series than Boston.

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