MIAMI – Late Friday night, inside the American Airlines Arena, streams of happy people were celebrating an Eastern Conference finals crown. One group of Heat dancers was joined by a cluster of older fans, and together they came down the hall squealing and shrieking.

“Shhhh!” a man said to them, putting a finger to his lips. He pointed to a door, the visitors’ locker room, inside which sat the Detroit Pistons, the now dethroned Beasts of the East.

“Shhh!” The women policed each other. “Shhh!”

They tiptoed past.

That’s the respect the Pistons get now. A funeral respect. A mourner’s sympathy. What died on that court Friday night? Here’s one thing: The idea that having your back attached to the wall is some great way to win a title.

“It finally bit us in the butt,” point guard Chauncey Billups said inside that locker room, adjusting his tie as he dressed for the last time this season. “We got down too far to too good of a team. When you’re not playing the greatest, that deficit becomes too large. … For the first time, it bit us in the behind.”

That’s two butt bites in one quote – which ought to tell you something. The Pistons gave us wonderful nights this season, glorious streaks of victory and thunderous displays of resolve. But if nothing else comes of this depressing finish, let us no longer celebrate how great it is to be down, 3-2, in a series. It’s like that famous Sophie Tucker quote: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better.”

Ahead is better.

And as the Pistons try to pick up the pieces, as Flip Saunders and Joe Dumars try to analyze, strategize and reorganize, they need to jettison whatever – or whomever – causes the laissez-faire attitude that has put the Pistons in hole after hole, series after series – this year, last year and the year before that. Blowing the series opener at the Palace to Miami. Blowing a 2-0 lead to Cleveland. Trailing San Antonio last year. Needing two “must wins” in their previous series with the Heat.

It makes for great stories. But it all adds up.

And it wears you out.

Get ahead, stay ahead

“I thought our guys got too comfortable with having to come back all the time,” Billups said as he patted his head with a towel. “And had this been a team not as a good as the Heat, we probably would have been able to do it again – and get even more comfortable with it. But this time it blew up in our faces.”

Bites you in the butt.

Blows up in your face.

You get it? It’s bad news at either end.

So maybe there’s an upside to the Pistons’ going down this way. Maybe next season every Game 1 is critical. Maybe next season every road game is critical. It’s another way of saying, “Stay hungry, men,” which you wish you didn’t have to say to a pro basketball team, but it’s human nature. You do.

What else do you say to these Pistons? Thank you, of course. It is easy – in the aftermath of defeat to a Miami team that the other 49 states find more glamorous and interesting – to be bitter and cast blame. But the Pistons won an awful lot of games this season. They gave fans their money’s worth. They made it to within two victories of another NBA Finals. It’s a step backward, yes. But a step most teams in the NBA would love to make.

And yet … how do you explain it? How did they lose their identity? How could a team that had shot so well suddenly become a brick factory? How could a team that prided itself on defense, see its opponents regularly firing 50 to 55%? Could it be as simple as something Billups said Friday night?

“There’s usually two or three times a season that you go through a stretch where you just can’t get it done, team or personally,” he said. “We had a few times during the year that we hit a few speed bumps. … And now it hit us during this time.”

Could it be that simple? Were the Pistons just … in a slump?

I can’t buy it. Oh, maybe for a night. Maybe two. But not over 10 days. Not against the same team. And certainly not when it counts so much.

More likely Miami was hungrier. Its players certainly shot better. They chased and raced. They made superior adjustments.

“They did what we used to do,” moaned Ben Wallace, “forcing your will on a team and making them play the way you want to play.”

Ah, yes.

The good old days.

The future can be solid

So is that what we’re looking at now? Nostalgia? Did something really end when those white streamers cascaded down from the roof Friday night and Shaq and Dwyane Wade pulled on those new T-shirts with “Eastern Conference Champions” on the front?

Well … yes and no. It’s not like the Pistons will wither and die. They are too young. And the starting five, assuming it stays intact, is still an elite unit. We can’t discount what this team might have done had Rasheed Wallace been his full self. It’s no coincidence that Detroit started to unravel the night he rolled his ankle in Cleveland.

On the other hand, no one plays in a vacuum. The last time a Pistons title era ended, it was because a rare superstar, Michael Jordan, led his team to the first of many crowns.

These days, there’s LeBron James trying the same thing down in Cleveland. And Wade may beat him to it, under the tutelage of a pedigreed coach, Pat Riley. Winning the NBA East isn’t about banging torsos with the Indiana Pacers anymore. It’s about points and scoring and superstars, and the Pistons will have to adjust for that.

And we haven’t even mentioned the West.

So what has to happen? Well, what has to happen and what can happen have so much to do with contracts and salary space that it’s almost not worth guessing. But a hard look must be taken at a few new faces – maybe even a new starter. That may be sacrilegious, but, remember, in the late 1980s, the “very good” Pistons didn’t become the “championship” Pistons until they traded starter Adrian Dantley mid-season.

Dumars, a master of finding the discarded and hungry, now must sift through the rich and satisfied. The Pistons’ locker room was not a morgue Friday night. There were no tears. It was all very much … in stride.

That should change. I know these guys are professionals. But it has to hurt a little. Actually, to come back and to improve, it has to hurt a lot.

Dumars – who absolutely needs a new bench and hopefully some diamond in the rough via the draft or free agency – has previously told me that win or lose, he would not shake up this starting five. That suggests Ben Wallace, a free agent this summer, will be back.

If so, the Pistons accept an offensive sinkhole in their lineup for the next few years. Rasheed Wallace remains a mystery, and his habit of disappearing – even when an ankle is not to blame – can be infuriating. Neither Wallace is what you’d call a coach’s dream.

And the coach’s future is hardly made of granite. I believe Saunders deserves and will get another season, because he’s new to all this, too. But Larry Brown was only here two years. Rick Carlisle was only here two years. Don Chaney was here two years.

It’s a short leash.

The Pistons need tweaking, not retooling. They have an improving Tayshaun Prince, plus Rip Hamilton and Billups. They didn’t collapse to a lousy team – they lost to a talented, hungry, likely-to-be champion team.

It’s not the end of the world. But it’s not the end they dreamed about, either. It’s now two years, not one, since the Pistons sat on the throne. And you don’t want to get used to people tiptoeing around you, trying not to disturb your funeral.

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). www.freep.com/mitch.

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