By the end, even the Pistons looked tired of this series. It was like trying to put a swing set together with the wrong tools. At some point, you just plop down, exasperated, and say: “This is never gonna work.”
It seemed that way from the start Tuesday night, in the fifth and final torturous game of this playoff series. The Celtics came out hot and before you could say “brick,” once again the Pistons were playing from behind. Once again, they were getting beat to the hole. Once again, their only man rebounding was Ben Wallace. Once again, Jerry Stackhouse was playing in some other arena. And once again, it was the Celtics’ jumpers that dropped through nonchalantly, while Detroit’s shots were a tad short, a tad long, a tad off.
Out with a thud. This was Wallace being stripped of the ball, and Chucky Atkins driving and passing to nobody, and Stackhouse on the bench for much of the fourth quarter, surrounded by Kryptonite, shooting a haunting 3-for-18.
This was Boston, and its villainous star Antoine Walker, screaming at the fans, “We’re going to the conference championships, baby! Yeah!”
And he fouled out!
This was, with minor variations, the same game the Pistons and Celtics had been playing for a week now, with the same bad results for Detroit. The only thing different Tuesday was the buzzer at the end.
This time it meant the season.
“These are the playoffs,” said a grim coach Rick Carlisle, after the Pistons bowed out with a 90-81 loss. “They test your character, your patience and your will to be a guy that’s all about winning.”
Especially when you lose four in a row.
Out with a thud.
When the anger soothes and the embarrassment fades, the Pistons’ coaches and players will look carefully at how they dropped this second-round series — how Boston won the clinching game with its two stars, Walker and Paul Pierce, benched with foul trouble, while two of the Pistons’ stars, Stackhouse and Atkins, were benched for being ineffective. And perhaps they will come up with answers.
There were few Tuesday.
“We didn’t get it done on the offensive end; we didn’t have a lot of movement,” Stackhouse said, choking back the emotion. He mumbled a few more sentences, then disappeared into the trainers room.
Not that you can blame him. When the best part of the Pistons’ night was their closing video, you’d disappear, too.
Not good enough
“We ended up losing to a team that I still think we’re better than,” Atkins said.
That’s why Hamlet never won an NBA title; thinking doesn’t count. The Pistons didn’t do it in key moments Tuesday — including the start of both halves. They never took it to the Celtics — or perhaps they couldn’t. Usually, when the home team is on the brink, the opposing team can at least expect to weather a hard run to start the third quarter.
Instead, Tuesday night, the Pistons emerged with their sneakers nailed to the floor. Atkins forced a drive that missed. Wallace bobbled an alley-oop. Cliff Robinson clanged a jumper. Stackhouse drove to the hoop and lost the ball.
Eventually, the Celtics got the point. If the Pistons weren’t going to take the game, they might as well. They did it by all but shouting out the Pistons’ plays, knowing all their moves, swarming every threat. They did it by clogging the lane. They did it by forcing the Pistons, once again, into abysmal shooting — 36 percent on the night, 81 points total, to go with the 79, the 64 and the 77 the previous three games.
They did it by snuffing any momentum the Pistons could cobble together. There were a few loud spurts at the Palace, but the crowd always was cheering for the Pistons to break the surface of the water, not actually, you know, swim.
In the end, the Pistons stood at center court, waiting for the clock to run down. The Palace was already emptying. The Celtics were hugging. End of the line.
“To lose is disappointing,” Wallace said, “but the biggest disappointment is to come into this locker room and see all these guys with their heads down.”
Want to make it worse? The NBA’s Eastern Conference may never be this winnable again. When three of the four surviving playoff teams didn’t even make the postseason last year, you know a rare door has swung open. The Celtics have a good chance now to go from lottery team to the NBA Finals.
And if they do, the Pistons will feel the sting even more. As good as they were this year, the dismal finish will shadow their season.
The Stack question
Thus ends a Pistons season that can best be called surprising — at the beginning and, Tuesday, at the end. No one expected much from this group starting out — except perhaps Pistons president Joe Dumars. So when the Pistons began to tank early on, few eyes were raised. That changed when they rebounded to win 50 games with a strong bench. And once they captured the Central Division and finished with the second-best record in the East, exultation turned to expectation.
It turns to disappointment this morning.
And the Pistons, to quote their motto, must go back to work.
They will need more rebounding. Wallace is great, but he is alone. They will need better distribution from their point guards. They will need to get better at helping out defensively, something Boston did well. And Rodney White can’t collect dust anymore.
Biggest issue of all, of course, is what to do with Stackhouse. I am all for a guy sacrificing for his team. But the best teams have superstars, and if he’s not going to play like one, he’s not going to be treated like one, and he surely is not going to be paid like one. Stackhouse, next season, will be in his final contract year here, and the Pistons must decide sooner rather than later if this team is going to revolve around him for the foreseeable future. If not, they risk watching a huge investment walk away for nothing.
Carlisle? He may be coach of the year, but he can improve. The adjustments he made in this series — or lack thereof — had no impact on Boston, a good team that looked too good against Detroit. It’s true, Carlisle doesn’t shoot the ball. But in a playoff series, the name of the game is matchups, switches and playing chess with the other coach. Too often in these four losses, Carlisle seemed to be saying: “These are my pieces. I know I can win with them.”
To which Boston said, “Very noble, Rick . . . checkmate.”
So it ends. They gave it a hard run. They gave it what they had. They gave us a terrific year and more basketball thrills than we anticipated or maybe even deserved. Thanks are owed. But thanks don’t last long in sports. When you deliver a division title, you raise the bar of expectations.
Fun’s over. For now. Then again, it’s been awhile since we looked forward to October. Let’s take that with us as we head toward summer, or as we call it here in Detroit, hockey season.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.