PISTONS NEED MORE THAN REPUTATION NOW

Tonight, they pull out the old armor, they tug on the rusty helmets, they lift the familiar swords. But if they fall, it is over. Know that. This annual drama, this thrilling but maddening Pistons attitude ends tonight if the Celtics win. All good theatre runs its course, and the Pistons Entitlement Show of the past four years has become a feisty but weary act. It might have one great performance left. It may still hold a championship. But, like a Broadway hit with dwindling box office, it is being watched by its backers very carefully.

And a curtain hangs overhead.

“We’re going to come out and we’re going to fight and we’re going to scratch,” Chauncey Billups said well after midnight following the Game 5 loss at Boston. “We’re going to claw and do the things that we’ve been known to do.”

Sounds good. Sounds strong.

But ask this tough question: What things have the Pistons “been known to do?”

Since winning the NBA title in 2004, they have been known to: 1) Steal playoff games. 2) Throw away playoff games. 3) Win strong on the road. 4) Lose ugly at home. 5) Go longer than needed against inferior teams. 6) Oust challengers in seven games. 7) Watch certain stars drift off the stage. 8) Stay cool. 9) Lose their cool. 10) Face elimination. 11) Say they like the pressure. And 12) Get eliminated anyhow.

Much has been made of the six straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals. And it is impressive. But if the Pistons bow out tonight or Sunday, they will have lost four of those six.

That’s nothing to hang your hat on.

And it won’t let them play Kings in Exile. Not anymore. Really better after all these years?

There has long been a feeling that these Pistons are defending champions, even when they are not defending anything more than “Eastern Conference Semifinalist.” They play, act and are even chronicled by the media as if they’re the San Antonio Spurs, a title-rich franchise always looming for another. But the Spurs actually have done it. They won last year and two years before that and two years before that and four years before that.

These Pistons have one crown. They’re not defending it. They’re remembering it.

And it’s getting fuzzier.

So tonight, with Rip Hamilton, their leading scorer in the series, injured and questionable, they will wage a desperate battle with Boston not to win the conference, but to stay alive. You can go back and look at Game 1 and say they let rust beat them, Game 3 and say they blew a great chance, Game 5 and say they just missed a spectacular comeback.

But for three years, in their final round, the Pistons have had games like that and rationalizing like that. And they walk away saying, “We’re still the better team.”

That mantra is over. If they’re the better team, they’ll win tonight. They’ll do it with mettle, guts and patience. And if they win tonight, you like them in a Game 7 against a team that hasn’t reached the NBA Finals in two decades.

But if they lose, they will have seen, for the third straight year, a franchise that was behind them surge past for a shot at the title. And there’s no reason to expect this cast and coach, left intact, would fare any better next time. Best shots needed from big shots

So Rasheed Wallace, heard Wednesday night in the locker room cursing a blue streak, will have to play, not scowl, his way to redemption. And Tayshaun Prince, understandably tired from his defensive burdens, will have to find aggression and a shooting touch if he wants another game this season. And Billups, a puzzling force this series, will have to earn his Mr. Big Shot reputation, not just hear it. And Antonio McDyess, who never plays with entitlement, will have one more chance to earn that right.

Meanwhile, Flip Saunders, who tilts with fans between “doing all he can” and “unable to do anything,” may have his job in the balance.

And if all that sounds like a lot, it is. For all the bravado, here is who these Pistons really are: a team that, like late-arriving passengers, stuffs all its baggage into one huge suitcase and tries to hoist it through a closing door.

In years past, there was always another flight. Always a feeling of next year. I don’t think they can count on that anymore. Chauncey’s “things that we’ve been known to do” needs a new interpretation. Tonight, the curtain opens or the curtain falls. Jump ball.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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