MIAMI – Rip Hamilton didn’t have a good shot so he passed to Ben Wallace, who did. Wallace couldn’t get that shot off correctly and the ball missed everything. Antonio McDyess tried to grab that flying rock, but it went off his hands and caromed out of bounds. The entire Pistons roster seemed to watch in disbelief as their A team suddenly couldn’t make that ball go in, while Miami’s B team was playing like world-beaters. And the Pistons’ reputation for Big Game Toughness was being dripped away like meat on a spit.
An hour later, they were smoked.
That’s the last night like this, or it’s the last night like this. Detroit is out of spare tires, out of air bags and out of options. Next loss and it turns in the crown, and that next loss will be witnessed Saturday night as sure as the moon comes out if the Pistons dare to repeat a performance like this, a tepid, erratic 88-76 deflation. Let’s be frank. They simply cannot beat the Heat when they play their second-tier game, and by now we know what that is, an early deficit, a shooting slump, a lack of defensive intensity – and a virtual disappearance by Rasheed Wallace.
Granted, Rasheed’s absence wasn’t all his own doing. Half the night he seemed to be lying on the floor, holding his head in disbelief after the referees blew the whistle and the announcer screamed “OFFENSIVE FOUL, DETROIT.” His foul total for the night – three offensive, two defensive, one technical – was six times his basket total, which was, and this is not a typo, one.
“It’s real damn tough,” Wallace said of his troubles with the referees. “Y’all had to see it. Y’all had to see that (bleep) out there. It’s so blatant! I mean, it ain’t (bleep) to hide out there with those cats, it’s so blatant. I’m gonna see who out of all you all really knows basketball by reading your columns and watching your sports stories.”
Well, it’s always nice to be read, but read this. If the arrival of Rasheed Wallace was what heralded this group’s championship last year, then his evaporation in this series may herald the team’s dethroning. Refs or no refs.
And folks, you haven’t heard the worst news. This was not a defeat you chalked up to Dwyane Wade’s brilliance or Shaquille O’Neal’s Shrek-like dominance.
Uh-uh. The Heat in the kitchen Thursday night was brought on by Eddie Jones and Damon Jones and Udonis Haslem and Rasual Butler, or, if you never heard of them, think Ringo.
An offensive offense
“What went wrong tonight?” Ben Wallace was asked afterward.
“They won. We lost.”
You can’t blame him for not wanting to waste words on this one. After all, the numbers told enough of the story. The Pistons saw a three-point deficit grow to 14 in just over two minutes in the second quarter. It was never really close again.
Never mind that two nights earlier the Pistons had achieved 60 points and no turnovers in a single half. Never mind that in Game 4 they won by scoring 106, and in Game 5, they lost by scoring 74. Never mind that so many Pistons looked good Tuesday and none looked very good Thursday. Hey, the games in this series are no more alike than the items on a shish-kabob; only a stick unites them. But right now, the stick is in Miami’s hands. And the Pistons, down three games to two, are the ones getting skewered.
In one 15-minute stretch during Game 5, they had nine baskets and 10 turnovers. That is not a good ratio. That is a very bad ratio. Forget the refs. Forget Shaq or Wade. The first thing championship teams do not do is beat themselves, and the Pistons failed that test miserably in this one.
“It’s not about what they do, it’s about what we do,” Chauncey Billups said.
Or, to be more precise what they didn’t do. Thursday night was stretches of the game when Shaq and Wade were out with foul trouble or injuries and all the Pistons did was fall farther behind. It was stretches where Damon Jones came down the lane unchallenged and made a lay-up or Haslem grabbed an easy rebound away from Ben Wallace or Butler got off open jumpers without as much as a hand in his face – things that the Pistons of last year would not have allowed because their unfailing defensive intensity would not have permitted it.
But right now the Pistons are not intense – unless they’re telling at the referees. Yes, there were terrible calls Thursday night. So what? Does Rasheed Wallace get points for being righteous? Will slamming the refs make the Pistons feel better when they’re watching Miami play San Antonio next week?
Because that’s what it comes down to now. The Pistons must do something neither team has had to do to this point: win two straight, the second of which would be down in Miami.
And considering that Wade, the miracle worker for Miami, wasn’t even out there for most of the fourth quarter, nursing a rib muscle strain, and the game was still a rout – well, the odds don’t look very good.
It’s two in a row or bust
But having said that, let’s give the champs their due. They still wear the crown this morning, however uneasily. And to think they cannot win two games is to deny the resilience we have seen in this group before – as recently as the New Jersey series last year en route to the title.
“Oh, were gonna win Game 6,” Rasheed Wallace said. “They’re gonna send some good (refs) out there. We’re gonna win (because) they want there to be a Game 7. There’s no other series. There’s no other series! If you all can’t see that, then y’all crazy.”
Hmm. An interesting guarantee. Victory assured by ratings.
But it will take more than a decree from David Stern – or TNT – to get Detroit past Miami if both teams follow Thursday’s script. The worst part of Game 5 was the lack of intensity when it seemed as if Miami was vulnerable. Some silly shot selection. A lagging defensive stance. The immature reactions to foul calls. And now it comes down to math. Miami has to win one game out of two. Detroit has to win both.
No way they are equal tasks.
Earlier in this Eastern Conference war, after the Pistons had lost two straight games to the Heat, Billups sat by his locker and calmly declared, “Our backs are not against the wall.”
On Thursday night, his tone was different. He and his teammates can feel the bricks pressing against their shoulder blades. They can feel the wall. And unless they want to be spray painted on it, under the words “One Season Champions,” they have to find something they haven’t found all series, two great performances in two consecutive games.
“We’re not talking about two right now, just one,” Billups said. He buttoned his shirt, pulled on a tie then added, “It’s one game now. Saturday night. Eight o’clock. Be there.”
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). He will sign copies of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” for Father’s Day on June 12 – 12:30 p.m. at Borders in Southland Mall in Taylor – and on June 18 – 11:30 a.m. at Borders in Birmingham, 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Northville and 4:30 p.m. at Borders Express at Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.