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Rasheed Wallace, the self-appointed deejay of the Detroit Pistons' locker room, had a tough time settling on his musical mood on Sunday at Chicago's United Center. To prepare for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals--and an expected sweep of the Bulls--he first selected a high-energy Nas tune, but after nodding to the beat for several measures, he abruptly switched to a mellower cut. Then, following the Pistons' 102--87 loss, Sheed cranked up Chaka Khan singing Tell Me Something Good to ear-splitting decibel levels, only to emerge from the shower and switch to the Lipps Inc. classic Funkytown, shaking his booty to the bass line.
Like the mercurial Wallace, the Pistons had a hard time striking the right note on Sunday. After sweeping the Orlando Magic, the Pistons had handled Chicago with such insouciance (they won the first two games by a combined 47 points and methodically stormed back from a 19-point deficit to win the third) that it was impossible not to recall the playoff battles of two decades ago, when Chuck Daly's Detroit Bad Boys routinely beat up Michael Jordan and stole Scottie Pippen's lunch money. But then Detroit botched a close-out game against a Bulls team ripe for the picking, getting outrebounded 51--33 and outscored 27--13 in a tide-turning third quarter. "We were lackadaisical and just played too relaxed both offensively and defensively," said backup forward Antonio McDyess. The words lackadaisical and relaxed were seldom applied to the Bad Boys.
Perhaps, then, the most salient question isn't how these Pistons stack up against the 1989 and '90 title teams--the estimable link between the two, president of basketball operations Joe Dumars, notwithstanding--but whether Detroit '07 can conjure up the championship magic of Detroit '04, considering that the rosters are largely the same (minus one neurotic genius on the bench named Larry Brown). This presupposes, of course, that the Pistons first eliminate the Bulls, then get by the winner of the Cleveland Cavaliers-- New Jersey Nets series, which the Cavs led 3--1 after an 87--85 win on Monday night. It's hard to imagine they won't. Having started the postseason 7--0 (chart, page 46), Detroit is clearly superior to anyone in the East. Funkier, too.
There are ways in which the current model out of Detroit is inferior to the one of three years ago. While the Pistons of '04 took their preternatural cool from point guard Chauncey Billups, who is still preternaturally cool, they got their defensive ferocity from center Ben Wallace. It was Wallace's ability to blanket the court--he would venture out to scuttle high pick-and-rolls and still be able to recover to defend underneath--that eventually turned the Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers into a runaway. ( Detroit won in five, taking the last three games by a total of 41 points.) Wallace is a Bull now, and in his place is 34-year-old Chris Webber, who didn't play much defense even before the 2003 microfracture surgery on his left knee that severely limited his mobility. Judging from his poor performance in the Chicago series (he missed all eight of his shots in Games 3 and 4 and sat both fourth quarters), C-Webb may well be a nullity throughout the rest of the postseason, with most of his minutes absorbed by McDyess.
Lack of depth is another concern, especially if McDyess becomes a de facto starter. The '04 Pistons brought Corliss Williamson, Mehmet Okur, Mike James, Elden Campbell and Lindsey Hunter off the bench, trumping the current trio of Flip Murray and Carlos Delfino, both offensive-minded wings, and Jason Maxiell, a second-year power forward. In the first four games of the Chicago series, the five Detroit starters plus McDyess played 796 out of a possible 960 minutes (83%). And while Hunter is still around, at 36 he is more Lindsey than hunter.
There's also the Flip-Saunders-instead-of-Brown difference. Though Brown's legacy has been tarnished by his nightmarish 2005--06 season with the New York Knicks, at the time of the '04 championship he was the master of his domain, a Prospero able to squeeze miracles from a team considered good but not great even when the playoffs began. Saunders, by contrast, is burdened by years of playoff failure in Minnesota (his Timberwolves made it out of the first round only once in nine-plus seasons) and the memory of last year when, in his first season, his 64-win Pistons lost in the Eastern finals to the Miami Heat.
And finally, Detroit's Western Conference opponent won't be a team with squabbling superstars (see: Shaq versus Kobe in L.A., the final days). The Pistons' likely foil will be whichever battle-tested and adaptable group emerges from the semifinal between the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs. In either case Detroit can't bank on animus from within.
Now for the flip side: why Detroit '07 should like its title chances. Well, just to get this out of the way, the Pistons let Ben Wallace ride into the sunset (he signed a four-year, $60 million free-agent deal last summer) at precisely the right time. While Big Ben is still missed on defense from time to time (see below), he has lost a step and his offensive game is as putrid as ever. Before redeeming himself in Game 4 with an 11-point, 17-rebound effort, Wallace played poorly and even drew a team fine for arriving only 76 minutes before Game 3. ( Coach Scott Skiles mandates that his players are in the locker room 90 minutes before tip-off.) That prompted Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune to blog, "A guy whose nickname comes from a clock was late to Game 3."
Plus, Big Ben, who was sometimes the plainspoken diplomat on a Detroit team sorely in need of one, had just as often turned into a pain in the butt by last season. He defied Saunders by refusing to reenter a game in Orlando in the final month and griped that not enough plays were being run for him.
As for who is there, Billups and Rip Hamilton are an even better guard tandem than they were in '04, and they were good then. Not even the Suns' two-time MVP, Steve Nash, looks as downright comfortable with the ball as Billups, and no one since Reggie Miller works harder than Hamilton at getting open. Dumars makes a great point about the backcourt that, since he assembled it in 2002 with a free-agent signing ( Billups) and a trade ( Hamilton), has only gotten better with age: "They don't get in each other's way."