DECISION TIME: GHOSTS OF ’04 TITLE DRAG DOWN THIS TEAM

“It’s crazy how thin a line it is from being one of the best teams in the league, to people looking at you like, ‘Damn, they’re done.’ “

— Chauncey Billups after the Pistons’ Game 6 defeat

But, damn, they are. When the door opened to the Pistons’ locker room Saturday night, a crowd of reporters surged in. And silently, invisibly, a shadow wiggled out. It went down the tunnel, up the stairs, out the door and into the soggy night air, gone forever, gone for good.

So long, swagger. Detroit is just another team now. A good team but not the best, or even second-best. Since 2004, the year the Pistons won the championship, they have acted like kings in exile, entitled to the throne as soon as its evil occupiers were exposed. In many ways, this sense of entitlement has been their strength.

Now, it’s their weakness.

Now, as Chauncey Billups sat by a locker in a sleeveless black undershirt, arms folded across his chest, he claimed to still have “the better team.” But without the shadow, his words lacked depth.

Now, as Rasheed Wallace stood near the exit, he didn’t speak – no guarantees, no bravado. At this point, without the shadow, it would just seem pathetic.

Now, even Tayshaun Prince, pulling on his shirt, couldn’t overcome it. He actually got mad – and he never gets mad. But without the shadow, you just looked at him and shrugged.

“Weren’t the Pistons supposed to control close games down the stretch?” he was asked.

“Who came up with that?” Prince snapped. “Who came up with it? Y’all did.”

We all did? But you were the ones who –

“We’re not gonna deny it. We’re a good fourth-quarter team. We’re a great fourth-quarter team.”

But you just lost four straight – in the fourth quarter or overtime.

“As soon as we lose a game or a series, all of a sudden you’re throwing it back in our face.”

So, wait, the media gave you too much credit?

“No, they did not. We were great in fourth quarters … but now that we lose a game, you’re throwing it in my face.”

He sighed.

“We ain’t perfect. We can lose, too.”

And there it is. Finally.

The truth.

Don’t blame Big Mo

They’re not perfect. They can lose, too. In fact, for a team that wants to measure itself by championships, the Pistons have now lost three straight times. Yes, they were gritty and passionate and at times resilient. They also did something rarely accomplished. They lost four games after winning the first two in an Eastern Conference finals. That’s only happened twice in NBA history – in 1971 and 1993.

So for the moment, Detroit is more notable for losing than winning.

And that has to change.

New blood wanted. They were good at pointing fingers, these Pistons. “It’s not us, it’s the refs. … It’s not us, it’s the coach. … It’s not the other team playing well, it’s us not playing our ‘A’ game.”

But that attitude is a poison now. It keeps the Pistons from being coached. It keeps them from embracing a sense of urgency. Most importantly, it keeps them in denial for the future. I heard lots of things said in the postgame locker room Saturday night in Cleveland. But I didn’t hear this:

“We need to look in the mirror. We need to take responsibility to improve. We have to be better than we are.”

Instead, I heard Billups say, “Having all six games – except this one – close, close games, and we don’t come out on top, that’s surprising.”

Surprising? Snow in August is surprising. When you lose four straight, you can’t call it surprise. That’s denying culpability.

Or this from Prince: “The playoffs are about momentum. We won those two games, then they snatched the momentum out of Game 3 and we never got it back.”

Momentum? An avalanche is momentum. If you’re playing a team that has never been to the NBA Finals, and you can’t stop it once in four games, it’s not momentum. You’re not playing well enough.

“Do you think you can come back next year, with this same cast, and expect to beat Chicago and Cleveland?” Billups was asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I feel like we’re the better team. And even after this defeat I still feel the same way. Did we play better than that team for the last six games? No, we did not.”

“But, Chauncey,” someone said, “how do you measure whose team is better if not by wins and losses?”

“Right. … But nobody can tell me that team is better than ours.”

You see where this leaves us.

No longer Cavs-Not

While all this was going on, down the tunnel in Quicken Loans Arena, the halls were packed with screaming Cleveland fans. LeBron James bolted from the locker room, his arms draped around his younger teammate, Daniel Gibson, who had 31 points on mostly wide-open three-point shots.

They bounced down the hallway, and James hugged Gibson all the way to the news conference – which they did, symbolically, together.

“I get to the gym early, he’s there before me,” James said of Gibson. “We’re shooting after practice every single day. … One day we had a sit-around in the locker room when we were struggling and Daniel said, ‘Man, if every guy in this locker room just plays as hard as I want to play on this basketball court, we’re going to be something special.’ And for a rookie to say that … I just knew he was going to be something special and tonight it was perfect.”

James spoke only of his teammates and hard work and appreciation for getting through Detroit. He never talked about “no respect.” He never said “Y’all said we couldn’t do it.” There was a freshness and grace to his approach, and the Pistons would do well to try to find players who bring some of that to the team – rather than a desire to sneer at its critics.

The night everything changed

Let’s face it. Things go in cycles in the NBA. The very night the Cleveland Cavaliers began their march to this moment was the same night the Pistons began their laser focus on a championship.

It was May 22, 2003. The night of the NBA lottery draft. That night, Cleveland had the right Ping-Pong balls and wound up with the No. 1 pick.

That same night, the Pistons lost to the Nets in the Eastern Conference finals to fall behind three games to none, and for all intents, the season was over. Joe Dumars knew he needed to make changes to get over the hump.

In the coming months, he fired Rick Carlisle and hired Larry Brown, then traded four players to get Rasheed Wallace. Detroit won a championship that season.

Meanwhile, Cleveland drafted LeBron James and began to slowly build around him. Since then, the Cavs have been slowly coming. And the Pistons have been searching for the magic of 2004. In truth, this Pistons team should have at least one more championship than it does – and if the fates were kinder, maybe two. That is the biggest disappointment. That, and the fact that with the No. 2 pick earned that same night, the Pistons blew a future by choosing the tepid Darko Milicic rather than, say, a Chris Bosh.

But you can’t be surprised that time has passed and the magic carpet is fraying at the corners. It’s Cleveland’s time now. Chicago is coming as well. If the Pistons keep their starting five, by next playoff season, they’ll have only one member under 30 (Tayshaun, who will be 28).

By contrast, LeBron will be 23, and Gibson will be 22. Ben Gordon will be 25, Luol Deng will be 23. Dwyane Wade will be 26.

You get the idea.

New blood needed.

The ‘Sheed conundrum

Having said that, a word here for several Pistons before they board the airplanes. First, Antonio McDyess. There’s not a player or fan who doesn’t feel badly for this guy. The ultimate rehabilitation story, McDyess, 32, fought everything to get back to the point of contributing, and for three straight seasons has been stopped short of rainbow’s end. He was devastated after Game 6, and there is no telling what might have been had he not been ejected early in the Game 5 marathon. He is a gentleman and a damn hard worker and he deserves better, he really does.

Chris Webber? It would have been a good story. And certainly, at times, in the regular season, he looked like the steal of the century. But as the playoffs wore on, he wore out, and those of us who remember him at his prime can’t believe how old he has gotten on the floor. At times, even jumping seemed like an effort. And remember, he was healthy this year. At 34, and a free agent, he is likely looking for something the Pistons can’t – and shouldn’t – provide. And I think he bit his tongue about playing time in the playoffs, because he was still the new guy. A full year of that won’t sit well with anybody.

Rasheed? Well, Dumars knew when he traded for him he was dancing with a grizzly bear. You love his power, but you always wonder when he’ll turn on you. Detroit would not have won its title without this guy. No question about that. But depending on an undependable player wears you out. And guys like Chauncey and Tayshaun making excuses for Wallace’s stupidly childish behavior and ejection in Game 6 -“That’s just ‘Sheed,” Chauncey said. “Woulda, coulda, shoulda,” Tayshaun said – is beneath them.

‘Sheed is a dilemma for Dumars, the president of basketball operations, because cutting him out would be like dropping an engine, but keeping him is like waiting for that engine to explode. Quality big men are so hard to find in this league, but as long as Wallace is there, the coach is never going to be fully effective. That’s a problem – especially in the playoffs.

Change coach and players?

Which brings us to Flip Saunders. He now has gone to two Eastern Conference finals, so the old knock on him (can’t get out of the first round) is gone. But there’s a new knock. Can’t seize the day. Can’t make adjustments. Most of the Pistons were mildly supportive of Saunders, but hardly passionate.

“Yeah, I’m comfortable with him,” Billups said. “I’m comfortable with everything as it is.”

Not exactly a “Where Coach goes, I go” endorsement, is it?

And finally, Billups. He’s a free agent. He can get big money from many teams. But he is not Ben Wallace. Chauncey loves it here. Unlike Ben, he does not feel underappreciated.

“I came here a journeyman looking for a home,” Billups said, “… and I won a championship, (Finals) MVP, All-Star a couple of times, go to the Finals twice, Eastern finals every year. So I’ve done a lot, man. This city means a lot to me. … My time here is dear to me, dear to me.”

Losing Billups would be a bigger shock than losing to Cleveland.

But you only gain by losing, and the Pistons, having collapsed in this playoff round, must lose some of the reason why. That may be players. That may be the coach. But whatever form it takes, it has to include the attitude.

There is no royal cloak on this team. They weren’t robbed. They weren’t exiled. They lost four straight to a young, hungry franchise and left the arena as second runner-up in the NBA playoffs. So long, swagger. By the time the Pistons boarded the bus, the shadow they thought they cast had disappeared permanently into the dark sky of another unhappy ending.

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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