PISTONS’ FLIP TRIES TO GO THE DISTANCE

So who’s coaching these Pistons? Some say it’s the players. Some say – after three straight losses to Cleveland – nobody. Both answers ignore the man who holds the title. Flip Saunders is, by job description, the head coach. But if you think that means Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers,” think again.

The NBA is a league of dones and done-nots. Players who sport a championship ring always will have something over those who don’t. The Pistons have six players who hold such rings. Their coach does not.

So how does Saunders, in the heat of critical moments – such as Friday’s must-win Game 6 or today’s single-elimination Game 7 in these conference semifinals – walk the line between telling players what they need to know and needing to know what the players do?

“It’s like racing a horse,” Saunders says. “You have to know when to put a whip to the horse and when to take it off. …

“It’s funny. People talk bout how our players’ self-patrol, how they basically just play. But in reality, they really want to be coached. And when you coach them, they respond.”

Saunders, who handles himself with grace, is in a tough position this season. If Detroit takes the championship, many will say it’s all the players, as they will have won it with two coaches in three years.

But if those players lose – guess who’ll get the blame?

Already Saunders, in his first season with the Pistons, has taken some grenades. Last week, as the Pistons began sagging in the fourth quarter of Game 2 (Saunders admitted letting his starters play too long) and then dropped three straight to the Cavaliers, reaching the blink of elimination, pundits turned the finger on the man in the suit. They said Saunders’ pedigree was coming back to haunt him. ESPN analysts scorched him, citing his poor playoff record in Minnesota. Even TNT’s Charles Barkley said Flip was the man under the greatest microscope.

And we all know Charles is never wrong.

But Saunders doesn’t react. He is not defensive, like his predecessor, Larry Brown. He doesn’t whine. He understands the questions, but he also has an answer.

The answer is: Just watch us.

Needing to do it again

“You know, from Day 1, these guys have never said to me, ‘This is how we’ve done it before,’ ” Saunders says. “They have given me the opportunity to coach them, and they have never suggested, you know, you haven’t won a championship. That’s never been brought up.

“I try to use their experience in coaching them. It’s like (Saturday) my message at the end of practice was: ‘We have six guys who’ve won championships here. Two years ago, they felt they’d never done it, so they had to have it.

” ‘Now those six players may not be saying, “I gotta have it because I never have,” but they should be saying, “I gotta have it, because I’ve had it before.” That has to drive you.’ “

It’s a strange dynamic, isn’t it? You have a coach urging you to go someplace you’ve already been without him, kind of like a new manager urging the Beatles to have a hit record.

It was easier for Chuck Daly, who rose to his first title just as his players did. Or Brown, who reached the Promised Land the same night as Chauncey, Rip, Ben, Rasheed and Tayshaun.

But Saunders negotiated things beautifully during the regular season, doing something neither Daly nor Brown ever did, notching 64 victories. And while it’s true things were bumpy for three games against Cleveland, Game 6 turned out OK. It featured some adjustments, like putting Lindsey Hunter on LeBron James, getting Rip Hamilton back into a more normal mid-range game, tightening up the lane in the late going, and keeping Rasheed Wallace in the flow of things.

Maybe all that is just the players focusing harder. Maybe today, that all comes apart.

Maybe Saunders can control it.

Maybe he can’t.

Showdown at the Palace

Today we’ll find out. There can be no coming out flat. There can be no exhale because the game is at home. The Cavs have shown they will exploit any chance to act more accomplished than they are. So in addition to making adjustments during the game – something I felt Saunders did not do well enough in the three defeats – he also needs to nurse the intensity, keeping things red hot, but just shy of boiling over.

Saunders says he takes a “say it then back off” approach. He will give instructions during time-outs, tell the Pistons what they’re looking to do, then step back and watch. Usually the players form their own loose huddle and discuss what was just said.

“As a coach that’s what you want,” he says. “You challenge them, then you let them absorb it.”

Whatever happens today at the Palace, it will shape Saunders’ career as much as the Pistons’ first reaching the NBA Finals shaped theirs. Only once has Flip ever taken a team past the first round of the playoffs. It was, interestingly enough, exactly two years ago Friday night. His Minnesota Timberwolves outlasted the Sacramento Kings in a must-win Game 7 to reach the conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.

And on the two-year anniversary of that event, the Pistons, under Saunders, won in Cleveland to force today’s Game 7, a gateway to the conference finals again.

So he is not totally devoid of experience, as some suggest. He did win two CBA minor-league championships, and while that is hardly the NBA, there are some universal elements to capturing a title.

Besides, what’s he supposed to do about experience at this point? You only get it by getting it. There’s an expression in sports for when you achieve success: act like you’ve been there before.

Today – and hopefully until some happy day in mid-June – Saunders and Pistons fans hope its déjÀ vu for the first time.

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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