THE FANS ARE ANXIOUS – BUT SO IS ANTONIO

If the Pistons won’t listen to their critics, their coaches, their fans or the gods of destiny, they should at least listen to Antonio McDyess.

McDyess is the long, tall voice of reason on a team full of cowboy swagger. When other Pistons say they’re serious, McDyess says, “We’re playing around.”

When other Pistons say they’re focused, McDyess says their focus is “out the window.”

If McDyess seems willing to go where other Pistons won’t, it’s because they have been someplace he hasn’t. Atop the throne. NBA champs. Chauncey, Tayshaun, Rip and Rasheed all have rings. McDyess does not. He’s like Ernie Douglas on “My Three Sons.” He’s on the show, but he came in late.

And he’s running out of time.

“I say to them all the time how much a ring would mean to me,” McDyess, 32, told me earlier this week, “and now we’ve got Chris (Webber) on the team – he doesn’t have a ring either – and he feels the same way I feel.

“I get so disgusted when we play” the way they have in Games 4 and 5. “I let ’em know, ‘Look, man, we need to pick up the pace.’ … I don’t wanna give any team confidence or life.”

The Pistons have given Chicago confidence and life. Heck, they should charge for therapy sessions. Just when the Bulls were depressed, overwhelmed, unworthy of being on the same court, the Pistons lifted them up, dusted them off, whispered in their ears, “I think I can, I think I can …”

And now Chicago is a little red engine that could.

And McDyess can’t stand it. Quality minutes off the bench

“We stood around and played around,” McDyess said of Game 4, in which the Pistons fell behind by 21 points before trying to rally. And after Tuesday’s Game 5, McDyess added, “We just expect us to walk out on the court and, like … win.”

Come on, Pistons. If for no other reason, you should hunker down, finish this series, and win a title with McDyess as your rallying cry.

It’s true, at this stage, the spring-loaded power forward from Alabama can no longer jump out of the gym, can’t impose his will at will, can’t outmuscle younger players or zoom past smaller ones. But he brings a serious intensity onto the floor that is frequently lacking from the Pistons’ second unit – and sometimes even from the first.

Detroit doesn’t have a point guard to replace Billups. It doesn’t have a shooting guard anywhere near Hamilton’s talent. But McDyess can step in for Wallace or Webber and keep the game at the same level – or even ramp it up.

He led all rebounders with 10 in Game 1 of this series, despite only 21 minutes of play. Twice against Orlando he grabbed 11 rebounds coming off the bench. He’s a streak shooter who has carried Detroit for stretches in key games.

And nobody takes the playoffs more seriously than he does. We all know the story. A top-tier player until a devastating knee injury, McDyess bounced around several teams and carried the tag “damaged goods.”

Until he got here. In Detroit, he has been resurrected. All that’s missing is the final coronation. Living in an orderly fashion

You may have seen a TV feature this week on superstitions McDyess holds. He told me he had to dress and tape in the same order every game, had to “touch all the coaches before the national anthem and touch all the players after it.”

His fear, he says, is that if things aren’t in the right order, “something bad is going to happen.” He still remembers about nine years ago, wearing a WWJD band (What Would Jesus Do?) and during a free throw, the band broke off his wrist. “And I think I went 0-for-10.”

Ever since then, he says, he tries to keep things orderly, predictable, routine. So can you blame him for being upset when the Clamp-Down Pistons become the Step-Back Pistons, when a stranglehold becomes a do-si-do?

Come on, Pistons. Give the old guy a break. He has waited his whole career. He has done all that has been asked. He wants a ring. He can taste it on his tongue. And if the team lays another egg tonight, he’s not going to bite that tongue.

So if you won’t do it for the fans, for the staff, for the media or for the critics, then please do it for Antonio McDyess.

Or Ernie Douglas.

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

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