Saturday, April 5, 2008

While we're on the topic of local teams crumbling

The NBA and NHL playoffs loom, and apparently Detroit has good teams in these sports. I say apparently, because for the past couple years it seems like both the Red Wings and Pistons have left their fans with very "WTF" feelings headed into the summer. The Red Wings led Anaheim in the Western Conference Finals 2-1 last year, and failed to capitalize on Chris Pronger's suspension. Even in Game 5, they were about a minute from winning before Hasek finally succumbed to the Ducks' barrage; Anaheim then won in OT, and took the Wings out in Game 6. The Pistons steamrolled Orlando and held off Chicago in the first two rounds and put the James Gang down 2-0 before Flip Saunders decided to mess everything up, culminating with his patented matador defense in Game 5. I didn't even watch Game 6 after Cleveland won Game 5 at the Palace; the Pistons were beaten.

All that a year after the Red Wings were ambushed by Edmonton in the first round and the Pistons burned out in the playoffs as Pat Riley ran circles around Flip Saunders. In case you can't tell, Flip Saunders is not my favorite person in the world. I remember hating Larry Brown's guts after 2005. I rationalized it in my own head that the Pistons would've beaten the Spurs in Game 7 if the Larry Brown soap opera hadn't distracted them. I know now that's not true. Larry Brown is/was the basketball equivalent of a whore, constantly flirting with everyone else, even in front of his current date. But at the end of the night, he always went home with the Pistons. He loved his players, and they loved him. They went to war for that sad old man and came as close to winning back-to-back titles as you can without actually doing it. At the time though, I was so happy to see him go. I was sick of his disloyalty. Nobody was giddier than me when Flip Saunders came in and the Pistons started 2005-2006 37-5.

And then they stalled a bit, and Ben Wallace flipped out (see what I did there?), Rasheed tuned out, and the Pistons flamed out. Nothing was sadder than seeing Ben Wallace leave the arena in Miami wearing his Pistons jersey for what would turn out to be the final time. I've got no love for Ben Wallace, really. He did what every other greedy athlete did and he took the money instead of staying with the team that made him. Notice how nothing good has happened for him since he left. His most famous moment in Chicago is having the fans turn on him because he wined and dined with the Pistons before the series started last year. The Bulls traded him to Cleveland, and he's been plagued with back injuries since; he had to be helped off the court last week in Detroit as the Pistons flexed their muscles and slapped the Cavaliers silly.

I'm probably taking it for granted, but I've grown used to the Red Wings and Pistons dazzling us with their awesome regular seasons. I'm ready for them to shine in the spring again. I guess I'm spoiled. The Pistons' last title was 2004, the Wings' 2002. And yet it seems like it's been forever. The cinderella run by the Tigers in 2006 came up just short, and Michigan's football team...well, yeah. I genuinely believe both the Red Wings and Pistons are completely capable of winning it all in June of 2008. So what's holding them back?

Toughness. This is more of a bugaboo for the Wings. The trademark of their championship teams in 1997 and 1998 (and to a lesser extent 2002, that team was more loaded than maybe any other team in history) was their grittiness. Guys like Brendan Shanahan, Joey Kocur, the Grind Line. Don't get me wrong, I like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and they did play well in the playoffs last year, but they have yet to prove that they're able to grind with the best of them in the postseason. The Red Wings constantly outshoot their opponents something crazy like 45-20. And what do they have to show for it? They try to be too pretty in the playoffs, they don't do the little things, they don't show enough hustle. It doesn't help that neither Hasek nor Osgood is really elite anymore. Now, with all that said...the surprising run to the WCF last year and the continued success this year (aside from an abysmal February) has me cautiously optimistic. I'll admit I haven't watched the Wings as much as I would've liked this season, but I'll be damned if I miss a second of playoff action.

Flip Saunders. At the risk of sounding like a real jerk, in my opinion it was Flip Saunders that held the Pistons out of the finals in 2006 and 2007, not Dwyane Wade or LeBron James. Don't get me wrong, those two were amazing in the Eastern Finals those two years, but is there any doubt from anyone that a Larry Brown-coached defense would've done infinitely better in defending them? Would Larry Brown have been a mental midget in Game 5 against Cleveland? No, he would've done whatever was necessary to make sure LeBron either had to give the ball up, or had to shoot over two or three defenders. Instead, Flip chose to leave Tayshaun Prince alone on LBJ. The result? The media's stroking of "The King" increasing tenfold as Cleveland won the Eastern Conference Championship. So what's changed this year? Well, for one thing, Rasheed Wallace seems to be much more subdued and focused this year. It seems like the fire is back in his belly. Oh, and the team has gotten a very, very refreshing injection of youth, and Flip is actually embracing it. Maxiell burst onto the scene against Chicago in the Semis last year, and this year he's joined by rookies Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo and veterans Juan Dixon, Lindsey Hunter and Theo Ratliff. Don't underestimate Hunter and Ratliff. They can provide very solid defense off the bench. Another factor that cannot be overlooked: Boston has the 1 seed and all the expectations. In 2004 and 2005, the Pistons entered the Eastern Finals underdogs to the Pacers and Heat, and ended up ousting both of those teams. In 05 and 06, the Pistons were the 1 seed and were expected by everyone to roll through the Heat and Cavaliers en route to the Finals. End result: shocking upsets! Now it's probably not entirely a coincidence that the wins came under Larry Brown and the losses came under the idiot, but it's no secret that guys like Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace thrive when people say they're going to fail.

Also, the strategic advantage of being #2: If the Eastern Finals pit the Pistons against Boston, odds are the Celtics will have had to go through the Cavaliers. That's not to say a Pistons' potential second-round matchup against Orlando isn't challenging, but ousting "The King" is a much more taunting task than beating Superman.

I'll probably do individual previews for each league's playoffs when all the seedings and matchups are finalized, so keep an eye out for those.

Go teams!

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