COLD REALITY: MAYBE HEAT CAN’T BE BEAT

Here’s a new idea: The Miami Heat is the better team. Dwyane Wade tops anyone on the Detroit roster. Shaquille O’Neal is unstoppable. The Heat plays smarter offense, more timely defense, it is better coached and hungrier.

If the Pistons don’t like hearing this, they can do something about it. They can win tonight. And Friday night. And Sunday night. Otherwise, this is what they’ll be hearing all summer. The Heat is better. Not luckier. Not healthier. Better.

The expression “it ain’t bragging if you can do it”? Well, it ain’t a lie if you can’t prove otherwise.

All series long, the Pistons have acted as if they had caught a cold and just can’t shake it. As if they only need to get their heads unstuffed and all will be well again. That’s hubris, of course. It assumes the Pistons are the superior team, that their three losses in these Eastern Conference finals are some sort of anomaly.

That is not how they look at it in Miami.

“I think” the Heat is “hungry, and I think we’re going to go get it,” Miami coach Pat Riley told the Miami Herald. “… I think our hearts are into moving on.”

What are the Pistons’ hearts into? Blaming refs? Questioning their coach? Stewing over something that all of them know but none of them will say – that Rasheed Wallace is, night after night, a crapshoot?

The Pistons can look at this series and see themselves – not the 2006 version, but the 2004 version. Remember, guys? When everyone had the Lakers pegged as certain champions? When no one was respecting you? And then you started to win and the supposedly better team unraveled?

That’s what the Heat players are doing now. With hunger. With surprise. With the joy of believing they not only can beat the favored team, they will.

In 2004, the Pistons seemed joyful and eager, too. These days they seem slow and depressed. Their game drags. They move upcourt as if chopping through brush with a machete.

When was the last time they looked free and easy? Do they ever smile – not counting grimaces at the officials? Rip Hamilton spoke about getting back to “having fun,” but the fact that you have to get back to it implies that you’ve already lost your way.

Wilting down the stretch

Now this does not mean fans should be mad at the Pistons. Or even disappointed. Yes, they had the best regular-season record, but that doesn’t mean much now. You win in the regular season with great offense and good defense. You win in the playoffs with good offense and great defense.

Those things – signatures for the Pistons – have been missing, but Miami has a lot to do with it. The Heat is clicking on both ends. When Shaq blocks a pass, drives full court and lays it in, when Wade blocks shots, draws fouls and circus-shoots in bank shots – hey, you have to give a nod to the other guys. Too many assume that the Pistons need only flip a switch. Such thinking barely got them through the Cleveland series.

It won’t work against the Heat.

The sad truth is, the Pistons played about as well as they could in the third quarter Monday night, but still found themselves behind by 11 at Game 4’s final buzzer. Outside of Game 2, even when the Pistons took the slightest lead, it has been like a groundhog finally crawling out of its hole – only to scurry back for lack of sunshine.

In the past, the way the Pistons beat the Heat was by watching Miami players wilt down the stretch. Now the Heat is confident, hitting even its spectacular shots.

And the Pistons are wilting.

You lose that swagger, you lose a lot.

A shortage of weapons

Look. The Heat has the two best players on the court. That was supposed to be manageable because Detroit assumed it had the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh best after that.

But Rasheed Wallace has disappeared, so there goes one. Ben Wallace has been rendered half-a-player by his offensive limitations. Chauncey Billups has not been himself. (Am I the only one who thought his 31-point performance in Game 3 was still marred by too much dribbling and not enough playmaking?) And Hamilton has been well-defended.

So suddenly, guys such as Antoine Walker and Gary Payton and James Posey and Udonis Haslem have moved up the charts.

And the Pistons can’t win if Shaq and Wade get that kind of help.

It’s not Armageddon. It’s not a national tragedy. It just might be that Miami is red hot and the Pistons are not. They might look back on this as one of those “we ran into as buzz saw” things.

But before they take the court tonight, trailing three games to one, the Pistons should take a deep breath, and they should think about the legacy they are creating. They act like champions, but they were only champions once, and that was two years ago. They began living dangerously last year and got clipped at the end. They did so again this year and now are one loss from another step backward.

Champion to runner-up to semifinalist is not the direction you want to go.

And the game will give you only so many chances.

Maybe they pull this off. They deserve our belief until proven otherwise. They have done the seemingly impossible before, although as Billups told reporters after Game 4, “not against a team as good as the Heat.”

And if they lose once more, “as good as the Heat” will be the new way they measure themselves.

Forty-eight minutes, Pistons.

How do you want to be remembered?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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