Antonio McDyess just sat there. The court was empty. He just sat there. A few fans yelled encouragement. Someone said, “It’ll be all right.” But he just sat there, hands over his head, staring into the abyss. The arena emptied. What was he thinking? What was everyone around here thinking?
It was a game they don’t lose, right? But they lost it. It was turnovers they don’t make, but they made them. It was the situation they never dreamed they’d be in, but they are in it.
Fact is, they are in it deep, down three games to two and going to Cleveland to try to stay alive. The Pistons have now lost three in a row for the first time this season, let alone to the same team. They have been outplayed in the final quarter four straight times. They are the ones with experience, but they look fumble-fingered. Their last few plays, they missed two free throws, they were blocked and they lost the ball.
Hey. You’d sit there staring, too.
“I’m still not concerned,” Chauncey Billups said, almost incredibly, after the Pistons – the team that wins nail-biters – lost another nail-biter, 86-84, Wednesday at the Palace. “I know what we’re capable of.”
“How can you say that?” someone asked.
“That you’re not concerned?”
“Because I’m not concerned.”
By the way, Chauncey fouled out – another thing that doesn’t happen. But it happened.
Look. This is no longer about quotes. This is no longer about Rasheed Wallace’s silly claims or the Pistons’ verbal confidence. This is only about what’s happening on the floor. The Pistons are playing badly. They are shooting badly. On Wednesday, they made dumb passes, lazy passes, technical fouls – two, the point difference in the game – and their shots were blocked 10 times.
And the bugaboo that nobody wants to face but you knew they were going to face sometime – Ben Wallace at the free-throw line – came to pass at the worst moment, 40 seconds left with the game tied.
He missed the first. He really missed the second.
The Pistons didn’t score again.
It can’t happen, right? But it’s happening.
King James rules again
“How are you guys looking so poised and not scared?” someone asked LeBron James, after another excellent performance, 32 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals.
“We’re all grown men,” he said, sounding like one – even though he is, oh Lord, just 21. “You think about it: It’s just basketball. It’s not life or death. They’re not the Big Bad Wolf and we’re the Three Little Pigs.”
OK. You get what he means. And he said it more convincingly than any of the Pistons did.
How can this team of young guns – some of whom, including LeBron, are in their first NBA postseason – look so confident and poised, while the Pistons, who own championship rings, look so out of sync?
“They’re a great team” LeBron said, “and we’re a good team becoming a great team.”
Faster than anyone around here likes.
Culprits? There are plenty of culprits. Rasheed Wallace, great as he often is, right now is not helping this team. He made four bad turnovers, lost his temper, got in foul trouble and was banished in favor of McDyess for the grit time of the fourth quarter.
And Chauncey? He is not only not playing like Mr. Big Shot, he’s uncharacteristically erratic. He twice overthrew men on fast breaks that could have provided huge momentum. He committed six turnovers – part of a ridiculous Detroit total of 17, to just 16 assists.
The bench – with the exception of one great quarter by McDyess – is not helping at all. At one point, the Cavaliers’ reserves had outscored the Pistons’ reserves, 15-0.
And, I hate to say this because he’s a good guy, but Flip Saunders does not appear to be in full control of this group. They seem to play with the mantra “don’t worry, we can handle it.” Flip’s switches, right now, are not working. His final plays the last two games have been desperate and frustrating. He drew a technical Wednesday night when points were previous. And while it’s the players that execute or don’t, when a team plays flatly three games in a row, you have to look to the guy who is steering them.
“Right now, we’re like the NCAA tournament,” Saunders said. “You gotta win to stay alive. You don’t, you’re done.”
That has the virtue of being true.
But it’s not exactly helpful information.
Detroit still can advance
You know what I thought about going into Wednesday’s game? Not the Pistons’ home court advantage. Not Rasheed’s flip dismissal of the Cavs, saying “the sun even shines on a dog’s ass.”
No, I thought about the funeral that the Cavs went to Tuesday, for the brother of teammate Larry Hughes. While the Pistons were dribbling and showering and going home, the Cavs were in dark suits and glasses, paying respects to a teammate.
Things like that are funny. They pull people together. They make them act … mature.
And wasn’t that how the Cavs played Wednesday night?
“I think Larry’s spirit and Larry’s strength is with us,” James said. “It’s all about Larry right now.”
This from the guy that it’s really all about.
So there you have it. The Pistons, of course, still can win this thing. Most definitely. The hardest game for an upstart team to win is the closer, and the Pistons have been down this road with tougher teams than Cleveland.
But you don’t see signs of giddiness with the Cavs. They started meekly in this series, losing by 27, but since then they made a strong comeback in the fourth quarter of Game 2, they outplayed the Pistons when it counted three straight times. Detroit woke this puppy up by taking the foot off the gas. Remember, when this second-round series began, the Cavs were a team dreaming about being as good as the Pistons
Now they are one game from eliminating them.
It was the game they don’t lose. But they lost. The mistakes they don’t make, but they made them. The assumption that they would come back strong. But the assumption was wrong.
“We got nobody to blame,” Ben Wallace said. “We done a lot of talking. We haven’t done enough playing.”
So play. Or else Friday night’s lights could be your last. And McDyess won’t be the only one sitting in an empty arena, staring off into what might have been.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. 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. www.freep.com/mitch.