Friday January 11th, 2008

As I stood by the door outside the Detroit Pistons' locker room Thursday, I waited to hear the celebration.

After a demoralizing home loss to Boston last Saturday that was followed by a 16-point loss at Dallas on Wednesday, the Pistons arrived in San Antonio riding a multigame losing streak for only the second time all season and facing a rested Spurs team.

Probably no one would have come down too hard on the Pistons had they simply mailed it in Thursday, took their beating and tried to start fresh in Charlotte on Saturday. Instead, Detroit used a stingy one-on-one defense to stymie the Spurs 90-80. The Pistons held Tony Parker to 12 points (on 4-of-12 shooting) and Manu Ginobili to just nine points (on 3-of-12 shooting).

So I listened, expecting to hear a roar from Rasheed Wallace or some triumphant words from Chauncey Billups.

They never came.

Maybe they kept their glee at low decibels. But as the media trickled into the locker room, the only sounds to be heard were the voices of Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince dissecting a particular play they remembered and Wallace belting an R&B song at what could charitably be described as off-key.

The thing about the Pistons is, they're good. Moreover, they know they are good. Losses like the ones against Boston and Dallas are not met with creeping feelings of self-doubt, rather by a stronger resolve to improve.

"We could lose five or six games in a row, but we won't hang our heads," Wallace said. "We won't hang around moping. We want to win too much. Everyone here is a winner at some level. High school, college, whatever. We're all winners."

That confidence is infectious in the Detroit locker room. When asked if he thought Parker would have been the NBA Finals MVP if the Spurs had faced Detroit in the championship round last season, Billups answered succinctly.

"Nope," he said.

Why not?

"Because you can't get MVP if you lose," Billups replied.

What's scary about the Pistons, who have advanced to five consecutive Eastern Conference finals, is that this might be their most formidable unit to date. They still have what is arguably the most talented starting five in the NBA in Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Prince, Billups and Hamilton. But this season, Detroit has seen its young bench blossom into a formidable second unit. Power forward Jason Maxiell (23.5 mpg, 9.1 ppg), swingman Jarvis Hayes (17.4, 7.4) and rookies Rodney Stuckey (15.6, 5.5) and Arron Afflalo (11.9, 3.8) complement veteran Lindsey Hunter off the bench.

The effectiveness of the second unit has enabled coach Flip Saunders to reduce each starter's minutes this season, providing valuable rest for a group that looked fatigued against Cleveland in the 2007 conference finals.

"They are getting consistent minutes and showing what they can do," Prince said. "Last year, we didn't give them consistent minutes game in and game out and they weren't able to produce. The young talent we have is high energy and they have established themselves a lot better this season. At times, they are carrying us."

Bench play isn't sexy, and you probably won't see a reserve grace a magazine cover. But the play of Detroit's bench looms large in a potential conference final against Boston. With both teams having key players in their 30s, the effectiveness of reserves in the second and third quarters of games will be critical.

For now, Detroit is content to ride shotgun next to the Celtics. But if Thursday night is any indicator, the Pistons are looking like a tough out.

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