Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Heat's Mercy Killing Of Pistons Will Create Lingering Questions

We've seen all this before -- from both sides of the looking glass.

In 1991, it was a quick, coldhearted ouster at the hands of the Chicago Bulls in the conference finals. A superstar whose time had come. A playoff-weary foe whose tank emptied. Pride and determination couldn't defeat fatigue and the will of the hungrier opponent.

In 2004, it was a seriocomic drumming out of the made-for-a-championship Lakers -- a dysfunctional group consisting of feuding superstars and aging veterans who'd signed on for a title they thought would be handed to them on a silver platter. Yet they unraveled before our very eyes -- also unable to defeat the will of a hungrier opponent.

And now, it appears to be occurring again.

The Pistons are shooting blanks, except amongst themselves, and now trail the better, hungrier, and having-more-fun Miami Heat, 3-1, in a conference final that's on the brink of careening out of control.

They're beyond saving now -- the Pistons, that is -- unless you consider a Game 5 win at home that only delays the inevitable as having saved something. It's coming apart at the seams, but those stitches were beginning to fray after Game 2 of the Cleveland series.

Rarely can you point to a specific time in a playoff run and declare, "THERE! THAT's where things went sideways!"

But the Pistons can in 2006. They can point to Game 3 of the Cleveland series, because from that moment, it's been so awfully difficult for them. Difficult to shoot. Difficult to slow down the opposition's star(s). Difficult to win on the road. Difficult to keep their composure and cohesiveness.

WWJD: What Will Joe Do?

And now, most difficult of all, the continuing of a season that, thru the first seven games of these playoffs, appeared headed for a victory parade. But the Pistons are just 3-6 in their last nine postseason games, and speaking of difficult, that's difficult to do and still be alive.

When the Red Wings set an NHL record for most wins in a season with 62 in 1995-96, they struggled mightily in the playoffs and lost in the conference finals. And the team that went 62-13-7 in the regular season could manage only a pedestrian 10-9 mark in the playoffs. They almost lost, in four weeks of playoffs, the same amount of games it took them six months to lose in the regular season -- that maddeningly meaningless sojourn the NHL takes us through every fall and winter.

Now the Pistons are 9-7 in the playoffs after going 64-18 in the meaningless (ahh!) regular season. The road used to be their kingdom, yet they are now 2-5 away from Auburn Hills. And in most of those five losses -- including in Milwaukee, for goodness sakes -- the Pistons haven't even been competitive.

Surely questions will linger this summer like the odor of sweaty basketball shoes once the Miami Heat complete this mercy killing. As I've mentioned before, the re-signing of Ben Wallace shouldn't be as assumed as in prior months or years. Perhaps the Pistons could use a genuine low-post scorer -- someone they can toss the ball into on the block when the offense could use a bucket or a trip to the free throw line. Maybe some defense needs to be sacrificed. Because the Pistons are dying by the jump shot -- which has cruelly abandoned them in their time of need.

Other questions will remain, and at least team president Joe Dumars isn't one to be afraid to make changes if he feels them necessary. He won't change the coach, most likely, even though Flip Saunders' not being Larry Brown doesn't seem so refreshing right now. I hate to admit it, but maybe the Pistons could have used a little LB in these playoffs.

I was one who snickered at Pat Riley's roster shuffling after last year's conference final as smacking of panic. In fact, I was elated to see Eddie Jones banished -- the dagger thrower that he can be. But after a slow start which led to the expected cashiering of coach Stan Van Gundy and the return of Riley to the sidelines, the Heat got their act together and now those roster moves might have been the ones needed to win a championship. The Pistons stood pat, mostly, and you could hardly criticize that approach. But now the weakness of not having a low-post scorer in the playoffs is being exposed, and brutally so, for the Pistons cannot throw a beach ball into the Atlantic Ocean right now.

The season may yet live one more game, but no further. The Heat are too hungry, too driven, too on top of their game, and have one too many superstars to contend with.

The Pistons had their time, and can certainly come back next season and achieve greatness. But who will be along for that ride is, at the moment, anyone's guess.

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