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Hoop it up all week with SI.com's writers in the NBA Playoffs Blog, a daily journal of NBA commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
12:40 AM ET, 5/24/06

Pistons sleepwalking through playoffs

Posted by Kelly Dwyer
Rasheed Wallace
Rasheed Wallace struggled badly against Udonis Haslem and the Heat.
Elsa/Getty Images
It doesn't matter how good a team you are, you cannot spot a conference finalist 11 points to start a game and expect to win.

Doesn't matter if you've owned them over the last 12 months. Doesn't matter if you're at home. Doesn't matter if you have Red Auerbach as your fourth assistant coach, the 1989 version of Isiah Thomas as your third guard off the bench and Jessica Alba (boasting aluminum pole, chaps and requisite Crusaders LP) is providing the halftime entertainment. The Detroit Pistons cannot expect to have a chance in this series if they don't roar out of the gate ready to compete. The playoffs are a month and a day old, Detroit has played 13 games and it's time for the defending Eastern champs to wake the hell up.

And it barely matters whether you thought the Miami Heat were going to sweep, eventually win or lose this series; nobody can come away from witnessing Miami's Game 1 victory without admitting that the Heat just played their tails off, and that the Pistons are still sleepwalking through the postseason.

The Heat were on edge Tuesday. They played an angry sort of team ball but never let their emotions get away from them. And though this series will get more and more chippy as it slogs along, I don't see this bunch losing control. The Heat rarely stray from the offensive sets Pat Riley draws up, however minimalist those sets may be -- and they're executing and bringing a sense of toughness to the defensive end that a Riley squad hasn't boasted since the dawn of the century. They chased the Pistons away from their comfort zones, dominated the boards and stuck their shots on offense.

Faced with their stiffest defense yet, the Pistons relented. They refused to execute Flip Saunders' offense, breaking from plays at the worst time, and missing several open jumpers. Rasheed Wallace was an absolute waste of time on offense, scoring only on two semi-transition buckets and a meaningless lay-in during the final minutes. With Udonis Haslem (who was 0-for-7 from the field) chasing him off the block and bothering his half-hearted jumpers, 'Sheed missed 7-of-10 shots. I'm not crediting a bum ankle for any of this, because some of Wallace's offensive decisions were plain lazy -- though his habits (after the Cleveland series) aren't much of a surprise.

Defensively, the Cavaliers' power forwards are just glorified centers. They don't want to leave prime rebounding position and aren't into chasing guys all the way to the 3-point line. Haslem, however, doesn't mind running around, and he's easily the NBA's most unsung help defender. Though he's not used to paying attention to just one player on the court, he's more than primed for the task of lording over Rasheed. His body can handle covering 25 feet at a time, while his instincts and sense of focus never relent.

Rasheed's poor offensive performance, however, is just part of the problem. The overall issue facing Detroit is its startling lack of precision on the offensive end. And, once and for all, I don't want to hear any of the too-easy indictments of Saunders, because anyone who has been following his career knows what he can do for a team.

Saunders has yet to lose in the playoffs with a team superior to his conquerors. He consistently lost in the first round with the Timberwolves to teams that were significantly better than his. Kevin Garnett or not, those Wolves were always fighting against first, second and third seeds, trying to eke out wins while taking in huge minutes from LaPhonso Ellis or Reggie Slater, or with Terry Porter as a third option. You can't fault Saunders for the roster Garnett's contract and Kevin McHale's doo-doo diligence afforded him. He did make the conference finals with Minnesota in 2004, but lost to the Lakers as soon as Sam Cassell went down to injury and Garnett, Darrick Martin and Fred Hoiberg were forced into point guard duty. He's consistently gotten everything he can out of the talent he's been given, whether it's a 40-, 50-, or 60-win Timberwolves team or this year's Pistons squad.

How it's Saunders' fault when Rip Hamilton misses an open jumper, Chauncey Billups breaks a play or Wallace tries an inane Larry Bird-style step-back jumper is beyond me. Detroit has been half-heartedly running through its offensive sets since mid-March, and even when the Heat eventually cool off (they won't shoot 56 percent again), the Pistons will still have to pick it up if they want to compete for a ring.

The Heat will cool off, though, and the Pistons should come roaring back. Because the Heat play best when they are exploiting one-on-one matchups, it is easy for the Pistons' defense to set up to draw charges or force turnovers. If the Heat could develop the sort of chemistry that leads to extra passes or toward knowing what spot the teammate to their right likes to cut, then the Detroit defense would be constantly on its heels. But Miami doesn't have that chemistry down yet. It do have talent. Exalted, one-on-one talent. The Heat know that the defense knows what's coming; they're just hoping they have enough talent to overcome the predictability of their play.

A few more things to take from Miami's impressive Game 1 win:

-- When Dwyane Wade (25 points in 27 minutes, making 9-of-11 shots) sets up at the top of the key in the fourth quarter, ready to put the game away, the Pistons need to send a double team. Doesn't matter who's trying to check Wade, be it Tayshaun Prince or Billups or Lindsey Hunter -- send a second guy. When Detroit finally doubled the Heat All-Star in the fourth quarter, it led to one Wade miss and two Heat turnovers in three possessions.

-- Even after a week off, Riley had these cats ready to roll. The Heat nailed tough jumpers, finished in the lane, knew when to attack in transition and seemed plenty aware of their chances from the outset. Miami played a tough, smart and cocksure game, and it was fun to watch.

-- We know the Pistons will get back on track defensively. They still forced enough turnovers to stay in the game, and they'll fall back on the good habits that have made their 2001-06 run so successful. Still, it was Saunders' offense that turned this team into world-beaters during the regular season. With an All-Star point guard (not Darrick Martin) at the helm, the offense has proved it can go deep into the playoffs. Without that offense clicking, the Pistons are merely also-rans. And don't give me that hooey about them stinking on offense during the Larry Brown years. Last year they scored 106 points for every hundred possessions. This year, during the regular season, it was 111 points. Tuesday night, pro-rated, they managed about 96 points per hundred. This has to improve.

Comments:

Posted: 1:40 AM   by Joe Don
The difference in this series will be Alonzo Mourning. Because of Mourning, Shaq was able to sit for long periods of time due to foul trouble without really hurting Miami. Mourning also enables poor defenders like Antoine Walker and Jason Williams to gamble knowing that Zo has their back. If Mourning is active on D, rebounds and provides good rest for Shaquille he could be the guy that puts Miami over the top
Posted: 2:40 AM   by Anonymous
The most troubling factor for Detriot is that Shaq sat a lot and scored just 14 and the heat still won. Williams, Walker and Payton wont score every game, but expect Shaq to have a monster game on Thursday, alongwith the usual star performace from Wade.
This team has established its defensive intensity and its not going anywhere soon.

Watch out Detroit, lose game 2 and you WILL watch the finals from home.
Posted: 3:09 AM   by heatfan
Thanks for the great write up. I'm printing it for my kids to read and learn mind of a basketball game.
Posted: 4:21 AM   by Anonymous
Gary Payton made a huge contribution on offense, particularly with Wade in foul trouble. The Heat bench will be the difference if they continue to be a factor on offense in the series.
Posted: 5:21 AM   by ravens199
Detroit just got done playing 6 games in 11 days while Miami enjoyed a 6 day vacation...in Miami, so it actually was like a vacation. I dont think Miami has Detroit's number, because it wasnt Miami's great play that got them a victory. Detroit's poor play that earned them a loss. Any team that scores 33 points in the 1st and only 15 and 18 in the next two and win the game better thank their lucky stars. Look for a re-energized Piston team thursday.
Posted: 6:27 AM   by Anonymous
The HEAT's role players will be the major key in this series. If the role players (Zo, Payton, Walker, JWill & Posey) continue to play like they did against the Nets, then the HEAT will finally overcome the Pistons and Pat Riley's gamble did pay major dividends which means, it was a good move to discard those invisible players from the last Miami roster of 2004.
-A.C.E.
Posted: 7:33 AM   by Anonymous
Just game one people!! Love the Heat, but until the Heat get 4 wins this Detroit team will fight.

Detroit is still Detroit.
Posted: 7:53 AM   by Anonymous
I believe this is the Pistons series to lose. It seems like the team we saw in the first half of the season has been kidnapped by older, slower and disinterested look alikes. I don't know if they need motivation but they must be aware that they aren't playing the LeBron James' gang anymore. Miami is on business and they aren't impressed by the 64 wins the Pistons had or the 3-1 advantage over them.
Posted: 7:59 AM   by Anonymous
The pistons are tired, but not in the sleepy kind of way.
Posted: 8:37 AM   by Anonymous
If 'Sheed doesn't step up the pistons are going nowhere.
Posted: 9:17 AM   by Anonymous
People need to give Miami alot more credit for this win. 1)they were on the road and won a huge game against the leagues number one team. 2) If you disregard the time stalling fouls at the end of the game and the hack a ben and hack a shaq, the Pistons got half the fouls called against them that Miami did. AND MIAMI STILL WON! Now i am not saying all those fouls were false, but rather some were very shaky and ticky tacky at times. Remember McDyess charging into D-Wade with his shoulders down, and D-Wade getting a blocking foul? Questionable?
Regardless, Miami deserves more credit. They won with D-Wade only getting 27 minutes!?? If the role players continue to step up for Miami and Udonis can keep Sheed from dominating, i would not be surprised to see miami win in 4 or 5 games. But that is a big if.
Posted: 9:22 AM   by bball_kritik
I don't know what Saunders' coaching style is, but he needs to "Flip out" on the Pistons to get their attention - and to get them to listen and more importantly do what he's telling them to do.

It was all about Larry Brown when he was the coach; which of course alienates the players. Because Saunders has no such over-inflated ego, he made it all about the players. This explains the great regular season record. But now the players seem to think it's all about them, which could be their downfall if they don't snap out of it and grow up.
Posted: 9:22 AM   by Daniel
Still pretty nice Shaq and Wade average both 28mins in this game and Heat still controlled it from start to end. Both teams have much to improve on in this first game so at least we know series can get better.
Posted: 9:31 AM   by Anonymous
Not just Mourning on D, the bench must contribute on offence, ie Payton, Posey. Antoine is a potential gamebreaker. Most essential, they need to remain solid on Defence.
Posted: 10:11 AM   by Shaggy
Excellent, well written article, especially regarding Raheed Wallace!
Posted: 12:26 PM   by Anonymous
Why is it that whenever the Pistons lose it is excused by saying they're "sleepwalking"? Give the other teams some credit and consider that maybe, just maybe, the Pistons are not invincable.
Posted: 12:45 PM   by Anonymous
Nobody on the Heat team is going to make a difference in this series. It is the Pistons' series to lose. They have the talent, they have the experience, and they are also in the minds of every Heat player. All it is going to take is for the Pistons to come back and play Detroit ball. Once they get a couple of wins under their belt, this series is over. There is no situation that they havent come back from, and the key is that Miami knows this too well.
Posted: 12:53 AM   by Anonymous
"play Detroit ball"

Wow is that the missing ingredient?

What exactly is that?
Posted: 5:50 AM   by Anonymous
This is just game 1 so don't say Miami is going to win this series. I like the analysis made on game 1 but this hardly provide the basis to predict the entire outcome of the series. What did people say when Pistons won 1 and 2 in the semis against the Cavs? "This series is over" but the Cavs managed to win 3 consecutive games after that and it was Pistons which played catch up. What happened to the experts opinion? At the minimum we need 3 consecutive wins to predict with 99% probability who is going to win the series with playoffs caliber squads.
Posted: 10:14 AM   by Anonymous
Good points stated in the article. However, I can see there are many Heat fans jumping all over the comments on here, but all I have to ask is, what was the score again? Detroit lost by 5 points! They weren't hitting any shots and they only lost by 5 points. There was a reason why Shaq and Wade were in foul trouble - Detroit's BIG D.
Posted: 12:18 PM   by Anonymous
This will be another great series. Just hope 'sheed' comes out with more great 1-liners
Posted: 12:22 PM   by Anonymous
"detroit ball" is "better ball than the rest of the NBA ball". They had the best record in the league for a reason. They've been eastern conference champs time and time again for a reason. Wouldn't you end up being a bit lazy if noone ever really knocked you down/out? You don't honestly think you wouldn't be prone to a bit of an ego trip if you were consistently the best team in the East? Obviously it's not the right way to be, but it happens. I agree, the pistons need to wake up. They shot something like 33% and still only lost by 5. Regardless of minutes played by Shaq and Wade, if you can keep a game that close with 33% shooting... it's definitely more of what you aren't doing, and less of what the opponent is.
I'm not counting the Heat out, they're a good team. I don't think they're as good as the pistons, but they obviously are good enough to beat them (there is a difference).
Posted: 4:17 PM   by Lyndon
Coming off a grueling 7 game series with the Cavs, the defending champs deserve a little bit of a break here. They looked tired and rightfully so, while the Heat had fresh legs due to their long layoff. Detroit has the ability to come back and turn this series around. The best way for them to take back this series is to use the same stifling defense that's gotten them this far. Game 2 is a must win!
Posted: 5:25 PM   by cmack82
The Pistons KNOW they can win this series, Miami THINKS they can. Huge difference in mentality. Don't expect the Pistons to shoot that poorly again. Example- March 22 vs. Heat, Pistons shot poorly in the first half but came back to win the game. I respect Mourning and Wade, but the rest of them (yes, Shaq included) are a bunch of stiffs.
Posted: 5:38 PM   by Anonymous
The Heat-Pistons matchup is what everyone was hoping for since last year...however, this is a new Heat team...Riley cleaned house and brought on some very skilled veterans...they may not be superstars any more but they once were and that experience plus their skills make this one of the best teams on paper ever put together. If everyone shows up to play, it is lights out for the Pistons.
Posted: 5:46 PM   by goheat
Sheed is over rated and Ben has never had the answer for Shaq, add the new players Riley acquired and Sir Wade...and we have a new sherriff in town folks!
Posted: 5:50 PM   by Anonymous
I think the bench players will be the key to win this series. Both teams will have their starter in foul trouble early in the game, so guy like Alonzo Mourning and Antonio McD will have to step up on offense and defense. We will a slower pace and low scoring game in this series.
This Detroit team was exposed by Cleveland, and I don't expect them to win more than one game against Miami.

Ben Wallace simply isn't the player he used to be. He is still a defensive presence when you come right at him, but his lateral mobility clearly is not what it once was. He used to be a terror, coming in to block shots from everywhere, but the explosive range that made him a game changer is just not there, and the lane has been wide open whenever Lebron James or (now) Dwayne Wade breaks the overplay at the top of the key. Detroit is getting absolutely murdered on back cuts for the same reason.

Without the old, mobile Ben Wallace, Detroit pretty much has to go with the double team to stop penetrating wings (Lebron and Flash were both able to score at will when guarded one-on-one), which means they can't cover all the shooters on the wings. If Cleveland had anyone who could hit an open three, Detroit would be watching this series from home right now. Miami has several guys who can hit those shots, which is bad, bad news.

Big Ben's drop off offensively is also hurting the Pistons. Teams don't even have to guard him at all, because he can't hit the short jumper anymore. His lack of quickness also means you don't have to put a body on him unless he's right at the rim to keep him off the offensive glass. Cleveland and Miami have been playing the Pistons 5 on 4 when Detroit has the ball, and that's a losing proposition, no matter how good Hamilton, Billups and Prince are.

The lack of post scoring generally is really starting to haunt them, because big men are able to lurk in the lanes while the guards push the defensive perimeter further out. This offense relies on being able to run its sets cleanly, because they really don't have anyone except Billups who can free lance if things break down. This is where Rasheed's ankle injury really hits. He's still a potentially potent weapon, but he isn't much of a post presence at this point, nor can he consistently beat a good defender off the dribbble. Barring foul trouble for Shaq, Haslem and Mourning all at once, I don't see a scenario where Detroit breaks 95 in this series, and that's what I think it will take to consistently beat the Heat.
GOHEAT, you're simply a homer.

Detroit will take this series in 6.
Posted: 6:44 PM   by Anonymous
This was an extremely well written article with a new and fresh approach. Looking forward to more as the series progresses ..
Posted: 7:45 PM   by Anonymous
The Heat win by 5 shooting 60% and the Pistons shoot 32% and Miami is braging. Tonight when the stones shoot 60% and the Heat 30% you will see DEEEEETROIIIT BASSKEEETBALLL
Posted: 11:00 PM   by Anonymous
Detroit has to wake up and play like they did in the regular season. They have the talent and teamwork to beat any team in the NBA. It's only a matter of time before they emerge as the powerhouse they've been all year.

Pistons in six games.
Posted: 12:17 PM   by Anonymous
As I figured, Detroit came back with a vengence in game 2 headed by the only Piston starter who didn't make the Allstar team. Prince has been underrated all year, but is showing the league that he truly is a winner. The kicker is that any player on the Pistons can turn it up at any given moment during this series. WHEN they defeat the Heat, they will prove that you can't just put a bunch of has-beens on a team and expect to win. Piston in 6.
Posted: 12:18 PM   by Anonymous
As I figured, Detroit came back with a vengence in game 2 headed by the only Piston starter who didn't make the Allstar team. Prince has been underrated all year, but is showing the league that he truly is a winner. The kicker is that any player on the Pistons can turn it up at any given moment during this series. WHEN they defeat the Heat, they will prove that you can't just put a bunch of has-beens on a team and expect to win. Piston in 6.
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