Before the playoffs began, I asked Pistons coach Rick Carlisle if he could buck the trend and win the Eastern Conference with a no-superstar team in a superstar’s league.

“We’re about to find out,” he said.

Maybe we already have.

The honeymoon is nearly over. The good feelings between Detroit fans and the Joe Dumars/Rick Carlisle/goin’-to-work philosophy are on the verge of collapse.

If the Pistons go down Wednesday night, those folks who, after years of frustration, had finally turned in the Pistons’ direction will turn away again, as if all that regular season success were no more than an accidental car horn.

Can you blame them? A defeat against Orlando in Game 5 would be the Pistons’ eighth loss in their last nine playoff games. It would be the second time they’d have lost to a lower seeded team in near-sweep fashion.

And, more importantly, it would be the second year in a row that an offensive superstar would go off laughing in his rear-view mirror, as the Pistons stared at their greasy fingernails and wondered why hard work didn’t deliver.

Defense wins championships, that’s the old saying. And it is mostly true. But what is assumed in that sentence is that to reach the championships, you had to show some offense.

Put a good offense against another good offense, and, yes, the team who plays better defense wins the title. But put a team with a great offense against a team with almost no offense? Your magic carpet doesn’t fly.

And that’s what’s happened to the Pistons.

Pistons are on the outs

Or should I say, that’s one thing that’s happened to the Pistons. Here are a few others. They are being out-hustled. They are being out-maneuvered. And, amazingly, they are losing the depth battle. Orlando’s supporting cast is playing better than Detroit’s.

That may be because Detroit is all supporting cast, no star. Look around the league. From Shaquille O’Neal to Allen Iverson to Stephon Marbury to Dirk Nowitzki, the star players are scoring star player points in the postseason.

The Pistons, who have prided themselves on a no-star philosophy, now look like the only guy at the banquet not wearing a suit and tie. Detroit has no answer to Tracy McGrady. It has no offensive flow. Its offense is as clogged as a frat-house sink.

All teams play better defense come the playoffs. So the gap between the Pistons and their opponents shrinks. Meanwhile, without a player who creates his own scoring chances — or chances for his teammates — the Pistons come downcourt, try their first option, (which Orlando has already figured out) then grind to a halt.

Look at how long it takes the Pistons to get their shots off in this series — almost always with single digits on the shot clock — and you’ll see how stymied they are.

Still, Carlisle remains steadfast to his system.

“We are a defense-first team, that’s our philosophy,” he said Monday. “I don’t much get into missed shots as an excuse. Defense and controlling the boards, that’s where you control a game.”

In over their heads

That may be true. But the Pistons aren’t doing those things well, either. One-man teams should not beat nine-deep teams. But it’s happening. Thin teams should not beat deep teams. But it’s happening. Teams that start two rookies should not beat teams loaded with veterans. But it’s happening.

“When you’re the head coach, you’re accountable,” Carlisle said. “I’m not going to run away from that. Having said that, I’m going to keep working and preparing this team for Wednesday.”

Good. That’s his job. And maybe the Pistons will show some gumption and fight back hard on Wednesday and force a trip to Orlando and we can see what happens.

But in many regards, we have already seen what happens.

It’s called “The Detroit Red Wings 2003 Playoffs.”

A high-seeded team sticks to its philosophy, says “one man can’t beat us, we do what we do, we don’t need adjustments” — and next thing you know, that team is gone.

If that happens here, it will be a shame, because the Pistons have steadily climbed back into the Detroit attention span. With no Red Wings as competition, basketball could have ruled this spring.

Instead, if the playoffs end Wednesday, here’s the sad scenario: there will be no future joy at a Pistons’ 50-win season. It will mean nothing next year if they have the best record in the East — or in the whole league. The
“goin’-to-work” campaign will be swallowed by the “goin’-home” reality.

And that draft pick the Pistons are counting on from Memphis?

He’d better be able to shoot.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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