ARE THESE IMPOSTORS IN PISTONS UNIFORMS?

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Before anyone jumps off a bridge — and let’s face it, the water is pretty filled with Red Wings fans these days — remember there is a reason these are seven-game series, and all that has really happened is that the Pistons played like the Pistons for the first two games, and the Nets played like the Pistons for the next two.

The question is where are the trapdoors? Because certain members of the Detroit franchise have been disappearing for large portions of these playoffs. And someone needs to investigate, file a missing persons report, something.

I mean, the Pistons won the first two games and haven’t had a lead since? Forget about winning. That was never an issue in these two miserable performances. But not even a lead? Not even a two-point edge in the first quarter? Something simple like that?

“Forget about if it’s offense or defense,” Ben Wallace groaned after Tuesday’s blowout. “We’re not playing basketball.”

That’s how fast the assets of this team have turned into empty columns. By the end Tuesday night, Rasheed Wallace had one basket, Mehmet Okur was having his pants pulled down by Kenyon Martin, Corliss Williamson was putting more balls in the other team’s hands than in the basket, and Jason Kidd was torching the Pistons’ backcourt in every category.

We now have learned what disappears quicker than a New York minute:

A New Jersey deficit.

What happened to Prince?

But the Pistons should be more concerned with the personnel they are missing. Let’s start with the obvious: Tayshaun Prince, who has clearly been switched with Tayshaun Pauper.

This can’t be the same player we saw in the Milwaukee series and the first game against the Nets. That Tayshaun was aggressive, confident, smooth and accurate. This Tayshaun is tentative, bumpy and clanging the rim. That is when he’s taking shots at all. Come on. What happened between Game 1 (where he had 15 points and 10 rebounds) and Game 2 (no baskets), Game 3 (no rebounds) and Game 4 (three baskets, two rebounds)? Was he kidnapped? Covered with a cloak?

“It’s like Jason Kidd said,” Prince replied when asked about his slump, “you got to take the good with the bad.”

He’s quoting the Nets now?

See? That can’t be Tayshaun. Where did he go? And while you’re searching, send a crew out for Rasheed. Yes, we know the referees don’t like him. And yes, a foot injury limits his mobility. But both things have been true for weeks, and Wallace still has been a force, a game-changer.

Not in New Jersey. He was yanked in both first quarters and seemed to lose his mojo on the bench. He has been reduced to a guy who takes bad shots and not much more. There’s a point at which, if the refs have stolen part of your aggressiveness and your foot has stolen the rest, why exactly are you out there?

And where exactly has Chauncey Billups gone? I’m thinking he is locked in his hotel room, and some alien has adopted his body. What the creature forgot to take with him was Chauncey’s aggressiveness, his floor leadership, his ball movement, and, oh yeah, his shooting. After 28 points in Game 2, Billups had two points in Game 3 and six in Game 4?

Is his picture in the post office?

Where’s the defense, too?

Oh, yeah. And while we’re putting up a poster for any form of Pistons offense (they shot 37 percent Tuesday), add one for their defense. Weren’t the Pistons always supposed to be in a game because of their tireless “D”? Well, guess what got tired? The saddest part of Tuesday’s 94-79 debacle was how completely New Jersey outdefended Detroit. It was the Nets banging the boards, and Martin poking away dribbles and Kidd blocking a shot and taking it the other way for a three-pointer.

The Nets’ fast-break points were ridiculously lopsided and many of them came from Pistons mistakes. Lazy passes. Confused dribbles. This was one of the rare times the Pistons’ effort lagged along with the score. Let’s face it. When a team is scoring backdoor lay-ups on you, your focus is not what it should be.

So, OK. That’s the tongue-lashing. Here’s the salve: After playing as badly as the Pistons can play, the series is simply back to where it started. Best-of-three now, with two games in Detroit.

But let’s make a deal. No more cliche talk. When the Pistons arrived last Saturday, they said all the right things, then played just the opposite.

And coming into Tuesday night’s game, they again read directly from the “Up Two Games to One Playbook” — “We can’t fall behind early. We have to move the ball. We have to shoot better.” — and what happened? They fell behind. They didn’t move the ball. They didn’t shoot well.

So no more talk. Just a search party. Because the sad truth is, they have been outplayed in 10 of the last 12 quarters. And you wonder if these new Pistons — whoever they are — can turn it on as quickly as they turned it off.

If I were Larry Brown, I’d have everyone fingerprinted.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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