Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pistons' problems are all mental


There are so many things to love about the Detroit Pistons.

Since there's no superstar, they play great team basketball. The ball movement is usually crisp, the shot distribution even.

They usually play tough, energetic defense. After watching a Denver Nuggets game, that's a breath of fresh air.

And they don't make a basketball game more than it is — just a game. Even after losses, their voices are even-keel, angry outbursts are rare (except, occasionally, from the mercurial Rasheed Wallace). They never talk about losing "the war" or "the battle."

But as enjoyable as the Pistons are, they're just as frustrating.

They don't always play their hardest. Their focus isn't always there. They take opponents lightly.

That's the only way to explain just one NBA championship and two finals appearances with the league's best starting lineup intact the past four seasons. And they've played in the anemic Eastern Conference.

And that's the only way to explain Detroit's 90-86 loss to Philadelphia Sunday night.

Trailing by two points with 11.3 seconds remaining, Wallace broke the Pistons' huddle and proceeded to peak his head in Philly's on-court, players-only embrace, arms wrapped around the shoulders of a pair of 76ers.

Wallace gets an unfair bad rap around the league for being a bad nugget when he's far from it. Off the court, he's great — there are no arrests, no problems. Rather, he does a ton of charity work that goes unnoticed by the majority of the national media.

If Wallace has a problem, it's that he can be too goofy on the court. The final seconds of Sunday's game exemplified this. As Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith all echoed after the game, Wallace's actions were unprofessional.

Especially since the designed play was going to him. Wallace did a good job of establishing post position and received the inbounds pass, but when he turned for an easy 6-footer, he threw it off the wrong part of the backboard. Game over.

Sure, Wallace might have missed the shot if he had exited Detroit's huddle with a steely demeanor instead of his laid-back approach, but he definitely wasn't thinking about the upcoming play when he crashed Philly's huddle.

That's the issue.

But Wallace was wrong for accepting the blame for the loss. In fact, he was the best Piston in Game 1. Fault Detroit's entire starting lineup for letting a 15-point third-quarter lead dissipate. The bench struggled early in the fourth quarter, but it wasn't for lack of effort.

As the TNT crew suggested, the Pistons too often become bored on the court. They think they can simply flip a switch and win a game. And the fact that they've done this on numerous occasions doesn't help.

When the Pistons play an inferior opponent, they take them lightly. There's no other way to say it. I'm sure they'd deny this. Coach Flip Saunders definitely would. But it's the cold truth. They disrespect opponents by doing things such as chatting with former players in the stands — on Sunday it was Flip Murray — and coasting through games.

This often leads to the inferior opponent gaining confidence and, thus, becoming a much more scary team. The 76ers who couldn't purchase a field goal in the second quarter Sunday weren't close to the same team that saw scrappy big manReggie Evans swish a fadeaway 15-footer in the closing minutes.

And when a team like Philly is brimming with confidence in a close game, nothing is certain. Even Chauncey Billups, Detroit's Mr. Automatic from the free-throw line, missed three of four in the fourth quarter. And that's not all. He also botched a wide-open layup during crunch time.

Those things don't happen when Billups is at his best, when his focus is impenetrable. That, apparently, wasn't the case Sunday evening.

The biggest reason why Detroit has been dogged by complacency since the 2004 championship — especially last season against Cleveland and now, again, this year — is that it lacks an inspiring emotional leader.

Yes, with the clock winding down, the ball will be in Billups' trustworthy hands. But the Pistons are devoid of a Kevin Garnett-type player, a Tim Duncan, a Kobe Bryant. There is no one to tell 'Sheed, "Hey, let's save the goofing around for later tonight." There is no one to get in his teammates' faces in a mid-fourth quarter huddle and yell, "We're not going to let them make this a one-possession game at the end."

Saunders' relaxed approach is part of the problem. Larry Brown wouldn't have let Sunday's meltdown occur. But the players should shoulder most of the blame. They are, after all, veteran professional basketball players. There's only so much Saunders and his staff can say.

Perhaps what hurts the most when watching the Pistons is that they don't appear honored to wear their uniforms. There they are, playing for one of the greatest basketball teams in the world — a team with three championship banners — and they're not leaving blood on the court.

You can tell by their body language. There's nothing wrong with being a calm, composed team — yelling and chest-bumping isn't everyone's style. But from watching the Pistons casually walk on and off the court and chat with people not involved in the game, it is clear that playing for the Pistons is not their life when it should be — for those 48 minutes of every game, especially in the playoffs.

Now, all Pistons fans can hope for is that Detroit plays hard and focused enough, long enough to make it to a potential Eastern Conference finals showdown with Boston. You can bet there would be no slacking in that matchup.

Because Detroit would finally be an underdog. Because it would finally have something to prove. There would be that proverbial chip on players' shoulders.

That, however, remains seven wins away. And don't expect the 76ers — or anyone else — to lie down and simply let the Pistons plod about doing their job.

All of the NBA's players are talented enough that anything can happen on any night. Philadelphia proved that on Sunday night.

And, right on cue, the Pistons didn't appear all that concerned about the loss afterward.

1 comment:

Sportsattitude said...

Well, we in Philly are slow to warm to the possibility the Sixers can actually take out the Pistons, judging by the fact Friday night's game was not sold out and neither is Sunday' least not as of Sunday morning. It's a little too hard to believe how poorly the Pistons are responding to a young, energetic yet clearly inferior opponent. Flip has to be gone one way or the other after this season. As for the outcome, since I had "Pistons in three" I will keep my yap shut until this all finishes up, but no matter how hard you can praise the Sixers for playing, this will be a case of the Pistons lost the series rather than Philly won it.