Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Long and Winding Road.

June 23, 2005. There aren't really many moments in sports involving teams I favor that haunt me, anymore. Even unspeakable fiascos like Appalachian State don't haunt my nightmares. The last I'd say I still ponder on a regular basis is the 2006 Michigan/Ohio State game. Aside from that, the list is pretty short and exclusive: the 2005 Rose Bowl, AKA the Vince Young Show; Game 5 of both the 2002 and 2007 Western Conference Finals in the NHL, both 2-1 losses for the Red Wings to Colorado and Anaheim, respectively (the Wings won the former series, but that individual game persists nonetheless).

And then there's June 23rd of 2005. That was the date of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. I could say Game 5 haunts me too, since it does to an extent, but Game 7 in 2005 was the worst. The Pistons somehow found a way to bounce back from Robert Horry's body blow in Game 5 to win Game 6 in San Antonio. They even staked a 9-point lead in the 3rd quarter against the Spurs in the final game, before being tied headed to the 4th.

Everybody knows, of course, what happened after that. The Pistons ultimately lost Game 7 81-74 and relinquished their crown as NBA Champions to the Spurs. They came as close to repeating as champions without actually doing it. For the longest time, I blamed Larry Brown, who would be removed as coach soon after Game 7 ended in Texas. I rationalized it in my own mind that the storm Larry Brown had created with the constant rumors of him talking to other teams about job openings had finally caught up to the players, and the distraction had cost them immortality. Looking back, three years later, I know now that I was wrong. It wasn't Larry Brown's fault they lost the Finals; it was his fault they got there in the first place.

After the loss to the Spurs, the Pistons vowed to atone for the defeat. The championship belts Rasheed had made for them after winning it all in 2004 were gone, and they were determined to get them back. Under new coach Flip Saunders, they stampeded to a 37-5 start. They finished with a league-best 64-18 record; among those 64 wins being two triumphs over the Spurs. Headed into the playoffs, they were universally seen as the best team; no one saw any conceivable way any team could beat the Pistons four times.

But the cracks were already there; the team that had been buried in praise for being the ultimate "team" and doing things the right way was immeasurably fractured under their new coach. Ben Wallace, the leader and face of the franchise, had become a black hole in the Pistons' locker room, and the rest followed. That, combined with Saunders' running the starters into the ground equaled the Pistons losing focus, having to scramble to beat Cleveland in seven games and then getting almost effortlessly tossed aside by Miami in the Eastern Finals. Ben Wallace's final game for the Pistons ended in a blowout.
Ben Wallace left after the season, opting for the riches of Chicago over the loyalty in Detroit. In retrospect this was a brilliant move by Joe Dumars; Wallace is a shell of his formerly dominant self, and is a financial black hole in addition to being essentially useless on the court. Still, the Pistons did their best trying to fill the void, and in January 2007 they signed Chris Webber to join the starting lineup. Many saw it as a move comparable to when they acquired Rasheed Wallace for the stretch run in 2004. Things seemed to work though, as the Pistons appeared to pace themselves more, finishing at 53-29 and still getting the #1 seed in the East.

And still, Flip Saunders' influence on the team derailed them in the playoffs. The Pistons coasted to a 7-0 start to the postseason, sweeping Orlando and staking a 3-0 lead over Chicago. And just like in 2006, they lapsed mentally and let their foot off the gas. The Bulls beat them down in the next two games, and the Pistons had to scramble to finish them off. They did win Game 6 in Chicago to win the series, but the toughness and discipline the team exhibited over Larry Brown's two seasons was gone. If Larry Brown had been the coach, after losing Game 4 in Chicago, the Pistons would've punched the Bulls in the mouth and muscled up for some ugly 75-70 win in Game 5 and been done with it.

Almost predictably, the same thing happened in the Eastern Finals against Cleveland. After a pair of ulcer-causing victories in the first two games, the Pistons lapsed and never recovered. The infuriating tendency for these Pistons to just assume they'll win because they're better than the other team is unacceptable. The players should be held accountable for that to an extent, but this did not happen under Larry Brown; it popped up when Flip Saunders took the job. Things bottomed out in Game 5 back in Detroit; after losing both games in Cleveland, the Pistons were almost willing participants in the crowning of LeBron James. The Eastern Finals ended after that; Detroit never threatened Cleveland in Game 6, and for the second year in a row, they had to watch another team celebrate an Eastern Conference Championship at their expense.
In my opinion, this is Flip's final chance. This Pistons team is better than either team that went to the Finals. The starters are more focused than ever before, and more importantly, they're fresh and hungry. Flip did all the right things down the stretch this season, resting the starters while letting the bench gain valuable experience. This version is deeper, and hence, better. Only two things stand between the Pistons and the Finals: Boston, and Flip Saunders. If this team loses to any team in the East besides the Celtics, Flip Saunders should be fired the next day. The time for excuses are over, and I pray that Joe Dumars realizes this. The window for this nucleus of Pistons to win another NBA title is still open, but it is closing. They can't be put to waste because of some clown who doesn't know how to manage a playoff rotation and can't call good defensive sets. Guys like Jason Maxiell, Theo Ratliff, Lindsey Hunter, Jarvis Hayes, and the rookies Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo deserve significant time in these playoffs. Maxiell brings an intensity to the court that no one else on the team can match. Ratliff and Hunter bring invaluable experience, especially on defense. Hayes and Stuckey are streaky, but extremely deadly when they're feeling it on offense.

If this team's fate is to lose a Game 7 in Boston after a war of a series, so be it. I'll grudgingly accept that. But if they lose in the second round because they lost focus against a team like Orlando or Toronto, or they lose to the Celtics in 6 because they let their foot off the gas, that should be strike three on Flip, and he should be drop kicked out of here. I hate sounding like that, because it's so arrogant, and I sincerely hope the actual players don't have the same sense of entitlement. But it's what I believe; there is not a single team in the East aside from Boston that can hang with the Pistons, and even then, Pistons-Celtics should be a coinflip. If and when it comes down to that for the Eastern title, I love the Pistons' chances, because nobody else does. In the eyes of many, the Eastern playoffs are merely the Boston Invitational, just like the past two years were the Detroit Invitational. These players, especially the Fab Four that have been with this team since the start of their run, Chauncey, Rip, Tayshaun and Rasheed, are extremely prideful. They rise to the occasion when everyone expects them to lose. In 2004, New Jersey and Indiana were too tough. In 2005, the Heat was too explosive. The Pistons handled those teams. It's time for them to take care of business again. It's time for Detroit Basketball to return.
It's time to raise hell, Detroit.

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