Monday, May 19, 2008

Maybe the third time's the charm.

In 2006, the Detroit Pistons, fueled by vengeance and the desire to atone for their Game 7 defeat in San Antonio that ended their run as NBA Champions, revved out to a 37-5 start under new coach Flip Saunders. They had maintained their championship level defense and implemented Flip Saunders' offense at the same time. They cooled off as the season progressed, but still finished 64-18 and were the favorites in everyone's mind to get back to the Finals and reclaim what was once theirs.

But behind the scenes, turmoil reigned supreme. Despite all the offensive flashiness, Ben Wallace, the face and heart of the franchise at that point, was being frozen out of the offensive gameplans. He, along with Rasheed Wallace, became very disenchanted with Saunders. The "team" that had won the Eastern Conference two years running was fractured. Combine that with Saunders' suspect rotations and running the starting five into the ground, and you had the ingredients for diaster. After winning the first two games, the Pistons were pushed to a unnecessary seventh and deciding game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs. The Pistons prevailed in the 7th game, but the damage was done. Ben and Sheed were pissed off and Rip Hamilton's jump shot was barely reaching the rim because he was gassed. The Pistons were taken out by Miami in the Conference Finals, four games to two. The 95-78 loss in Game 6 in Miami would be the last time Ben Wallace ever wore a Pistons jersey.

In 2007, the Pistons were a question mark. Ben Wallace had signed with Chicago and nobody knew if Flip could keep the rest of the team together. Those questions were dealt away with, as the Pistons finished the regular season 53-29, again claiming the #1 seed in the East.

They swept the Magic in the first round with ease, and took the first three games from Ben Wallace's Bulls in the second. And then, much like what happened against Cleveland in round 2 in 2006, the Pistons lost their focus. The Bulls blew them off the court in Games 4 and 5, and led Game 6 at halftime. The Pistons buckled down and eventually won the game, but a disturbing trend was developing.

That trend returned in the Eastern Finals against the Cavaliers. The Pistons won the first two games at home, but their mental toughness was fading. In both Games 3 and 4 in Cleveland, the Pistons led after three quarters, and both times, they let it slip away and they returned to Detroit tied 2-2. It was that fateful Game 5 where it was obvious now that these Pistons weren't the same ones that won the East in 2004 and 2005. Flip Saunders had a ridiculous fear that if they paid too much attention to LeBron James, Cleveland's role players would beat them (to Flip's credit, this would happen in Game 6). So he gave orders to not double LeBron. The result? LeBron James scoring Cleveland's final 25 points and beating the Pistons single handedly 109-107 in double overtime. I skipped Game 6, I didn't need to watch; I knew the outcome. The Pistons were finished. Cleveland pounded them 91-78 in Game 6, and for the second year in a row, the Pistons' hubris led to the underdog celebrating the Eastern Conference Championship. And while all this was going on, the Pistons were once again fighting with each other as well as fighting the opponent. Chauncey and Rip were bickering. Rasheed was doing his usual thing of tuning in and out. Oh, and the dictionary definition of "loser" was in the starting lineup and playing little to no defense and yelling at coaches who tried to adjust what he was doing.

Fast forward to present day. It's May 19th, 2008. The Eastern Conference Finals are going to start tomorrow night. The Pistons are going to be there. For the sixth year in a row, the Pistons will battle for a spot in the NBA Finals. You can look back at what history says to try and predict how they'll do, but first, be very careful when looking at the 2003, 2004 and 2005 teams. Well, you can throw out 2003 altogether; that was a young, inexperienced, Rick Carlisle-coached team that went up against the defending Eastern Champion Nets and got swept. And while I will reference 2004 and 2005, it's more important to look at 2006 and 2007 to see where we're at now.

1. Flip Saunders is still the coach. This is debateable about whether or not that's a good thing. Flip made horrible, horrible decisions in the postseason in 2006 and 2007 that had direct impact on the Pistons hitting the golf course earlier than expected.

1a. Mental toughness and focus. It might be overblown, and it doesn't fall ALL on Flip's shoulders, but the focus and killer instinct of this team is a legitimate factor. In 2006 they took the pedal off the gas after going up 2-0 on Cleveland. The result: they fell behind 3-2, scrambled to win in 7 games, and had nothing left in the tank for the Miami series. In 2007 they went up 3-0 on Chicago only to lose the next two and scramble to win Game 6. In the next round, they went up 2-0 on Cleveland and took the pedal off the gas. This time it finished them, as LeBron went crazy. This year they weren't even ready to play from the start. They completely blew Game 1 to Philadelphia and got blown out in Game 3. Since that point, they are 7-1, including some serious gutchecks. What do I mean by "gutcheck"? Being down by 10 at halftime of Game 4 of a series you trail 2-1, only to go gang busters in the second half, win by 9, and win the next two by 18 and 23 to clinch the series. Or how about watching a 10 point halftime lead of Game 2 against Orlando evaporate under the firestorm of seven straight Magic triples in the 3rd quarter, only to persevere in the 4th? Or losing Game 3 of that series by 25 while your point guard suffers an injury that would sideline him for the rest of the series, only to bounce back in Game 4, erase a 15 point 3rd quarter deficit, hit a clutch shot in the dying seconds and play some serious defense to win by one on the road? Or rallying in the 4th quarter of Game 5 and having your best defender seal the series with a signature block in the final minute to earn a week off before the Conference Finals?

I'm here to tell you now: Since halftime ended in Game 4 in Philadelphia, these Pistons have been absolutely perfect. And I mean everyone, including the coach whose name is the subject of a category on this blog associated with failure. In Chauncey's absence against Orlando, Flip pushed all the right buttons with Stuckey and Lindsey. Rip and Tayshaun carried this team past the Magic with Chauncey on the sidelines. And look the result. Instead of scrambling to beat the Cavs in 7 after leading 2-0 or scrambling to beat the Bulls in 6 after leading 3-0, the Pistons haven't played in almost seven days, while God's Gift to Basketball, the Boston Celtics, have been pushed to seven games by both of their opponents; they haven't won on the road yet.

Up to this point, things could not have gone better. The Pistons are the ones rested and ready to go, while Boston has no time to rest before the high pressure of the Conference Finals begins. And here is where I'll reference 2004 and 2005: in those years, the Pistons weren't the favorites. Indiana and Miami had homecourt, as opposed to the Pistons having it against Miami and Cleveland in 2006 and 2007. The Pistons were the underdog, and as cliche as it might be, these Pistons thrive when they're picked to lose. Sure, some doubt has crept into the minds of all the talking heads since the Pistons have for the most part breezed through the first two rounds while the Celtics are 8-6. But the fact remains: since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived in Boston, the Celtics have been the media darlings. They won 66 games, Garnett won Defensive Player of the Year, and ESPN has run 1000 commercials with the Big Three the Big Two and Ray Allen. The national media is drooling at the thought of a Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals. I think Stuart Scott is stockpiling hand lotion for the event.

Simply put: The Pistons are viewed as just another speedbump in the Celtics' path to the championship. And everyone that wears or supports the red, white, and blue (Pistons' colors, not America) could not possibly love that anymore.

Atlanta didn't come close to winning in Boston. Cleveland came close to winning in Boston three times. Detroit is substantially better than both of those teams. If the Celtics don't wake up on the road, if Ray Allen doesn't wake up period, if Doc Rivers does his best to suck harder than Flip Saunders, the Pistons are going to win this thing, and for the first time in forever, I'm optimistic.

Pistons steal one in Boston (I'm guessing Game 1), they win Games 3 and 4 in Detroit, Boston wins Game 5 back home, and the Pistons win the East by winning Game 6 at home.

Either later today or tomorrow (before Game 1) I'll do more of an analytical viewpoint that supports my prediction. Go Pistons.

(Oh, and I'll probably have something to say after Game 6 in Dallas tonight. I just hope it doesn't go under the "debacles" or "rants" categories. Hell, I might have to create a new category if the Wings lose. Jesus.)

1 comment:

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

Wings had better win.

Also, I have a green and white Detroit hat with a shamrock on it. What does that make me?