Monday April 28th, 2008

PHILADELPHIA -- The worn clothes were arranged in four piles in the middle of the locker-room floor: the white warmup pants doubled over lengthwise in half, the sleeved tops folded to show the DETROIT name across the chest, the blue uniform tank tops arranged face down, the shorts. The players stepped around them on their way to their lockers. They could be heard chatting in the showers without singing or laughing, and there was no sign among them late Sunday night of having won the biggest game of what is becoming another long season. Both good and bad omens could be taken from their flatlined mood.

"It doesn't matter what round it is,'' said Tayshaun Prince, who had done more than any Piston to keep his team afloat through this difficult weekend. "This was the biggest game of the playoffs for us.''

In this small, steamy room, it might have been a routine game in February, so routinely were the Pistons reacting to what they had accomplished. By snuffing out the 76ers over an extended 15-minute run to win Game 4 by 93-84, they had reclaimed home-court advantage while evening their opening-round series at 2-2 heading back to Detroit for Game 5 on Tuesday. More important, they avoided tumbling into a 3-1 pit that would have left them feeling like the newest version of last year's Mavericks.

There was nothing to celebrate Sunday because they believed they never should have put themselves in so much danger. And also because they had accomplished nothing yet by winning a game they were supposed to win. And also because they've been through so many big games already that they digest results like this in confident or arrogant stride. They walked off the court Sunday like Tiger Woods leaving a green after saving par on a Thursday morning, three rounds before it really matters.

The paradox of this team is that its weakness derives from its strength. How do the Pistons create energy after expending so much over the past five seasons? The Spurs, who have been better than Detroit for a longer period of time, manage to come up with the ambition when they need it. But they have Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, whereas the Pistons have Rasheed Wallace and Larry Brown left years ago, as he always does.

Against the backdrop of their own conference these Pistons have been so good, so superior, that they are their own worst enemy. This was their 103rd playoff game dating back to the start of their ongoing run of five straight conference finals. The 82-game season is too long for most teams; the Pistons have put on an additional 20 games -- crucial, enervating, all-out games -- each of these previous five seasons. Now they were playing a 76ers team that expected to be in the lottery three months ago, an opponent with no All-Stars that starts the league's second-youngest player in 19-year-old rookie forward Thaddeus Young.

The Pistons know they should have no problems here so long as they play hard. But how can they rise up the inspiration to play hard when they know they should have no problems?

This conundrum resulted in a confounding display of ineptitude Friday in Game 3 as the Pistons committed 25 turnovers overall -- seven more than their regular-season worst, after leading the league with 11.1 per game -- and missed 17 shots in a row in the third quarter. Even so, their young hosts still had to practically talk themselves into winning that game. In hindsight, it looked like an explosive 95-75 Philadelphia win; in reality, the Pistons would miss a shot, and Andre Iguodala would turn it over; or the Pistons would turn it over, and the Sixers would botch an alley-oop. The Pistons were like a suicidal boxer lowering both hands, and Philadelphia was too excited and nervous to knock them out.

Come on, you can do it, the Pistons seemed to be saying. Hit us so we can hit you back.

We can't! We don't know how! Or so the 76ers seemed to be crying among themselves.

The rally took minutes and minutes to build. It was one of the strangest blowouts I've seen, as if the Sixers had to convince themselves that they were capable of doing what they did.

On Sunday night, I asked Prince if his team perversely needs to engage itself in difficult positions in order to create the inspiration and incentive necessary to play its best.

"Well, I don't know what to say about that,'' Prince said. "It definitely hurts to put ourselves in this position. These are guys I've played with for a long time, and the chemistry we have late in the games in desperate times definitely helps us. ... You want to be tested, but at the same time you don't want to give games away.''

To be fair, the Pistons would have had an easier time against Toronto, Atlanta or any of the other lesser teams in the East that play more conventionally. The 76ers are too young to grasp those fundamentals, so they've embraced a trapping, scrambling defensive style that resulted in a 22-12 season-ending run, which in turn converted them from a perennial lottery team into the second coming of the young Bulls who emerged three years ago (and have since fallen apart). In style they have little in common with that surprising Bulls team, apart from the fact that they put their young legs to bewildering use defensively.

The strangeness of Game 3 was that the Pistons were missing so many open shots. But they were not the kinds of shots they expected to be taking.

"If we're playing a lot of teams that don't play those junk defenses, you know where your shots are coming,'' point guard Chauncey Billups told me Saturday before Detroit's practice. "With this team, a lot of times you don't know where your shots are coming. They junk it up, they do different things, they play different lineups where one guy may be switching, one guy is trapping, one guy may be hard-showing [on picks]. So you get some shots that are open, but you're a little bit out of sync, a little bit out of rhythm when you get them.''

Billups' difficulties have been multiplied by his matchup with Andre Miller, the 76ers' lone veteran starter who also happens to be big enough to neutralize Billups' physical strength. While Miller is shooting 53.6 percent while averaging 17.0 points and 4.6 assists in the series, Billups is 12-for-42 (28.6 percent) while averaging 13.0 points and 5.3 assists. He needs to reverse a playoff trend that dates back to last year's conference finals, when he underperformed during the Cavaliers' upset win in six games.

Prince has been the most reliable Piston by far, shutting down Iguodala (10.5 points on 22.4 percent shooting in four games) while himself hitting 19-of-21 shots during the two games in Philadelphia. But the story of Game 4 was 33-year-old forward Antonio McDyess, who came off the bench after undergoing surgery back home to repair a broken nose he suffered in Game 3 on Friday. He left the team hotel in Philadelphia at 4:50 am Saturday, flew commercially to Detroit and went straight to the hospital for the operation. After a couple of hours of sleep, he flew back to Philadelphia for Game 4.

"The doctor told me I was going to miss the game,'' said McDyess, whose only food over the two days was a pregame meal of fruit Sunday afternoon. "I told him ain't no way I could miss it. It was too important for myself and for my teammates.''

McDyess overcame his misery to provide the hustle plays that kept Detroit relevant in the first half.

"That was a lot of courage on 'Dyess' part to come back,'' Prince said. "It was crazy that out of anybody on our team, he was the one playing the hardest. If it wasn't for him, we might have been down 20 at halftime instead of 10.''

McDyess is the only veteran rotation player not on the Pistons' 2004 championship team. "I want it bad,'' he said. "It would complete my career if I were to get a championship.'' He was horrified to watch the Pistons' starters yield the opening quarter Sunday. "I'm looking at it and I'm saying, We're not giving it all that we have,'' he said.

Now that they appear to be back in control of the series, can they regain their edge to match the intensity of likely future opponents Orlando in the second round and Boston thereafter?

"We can,'' McDyess said, "but we can't keep exerting so much energy like this in the first round. We have to finish these teams off so we can get some rest.''

Such bad habits are hard to break. But maybe ... maybe ... they'll derive new energy as underdogs next month should they reach the conference finals against the Celtics. In which case the Pistons won't need to dig holes from which to escape and can simply play all-out every night. Maybe in that sense it's not so difficult to understand them after all. Probably -- no, definitely -- they are ultimately more dangerous than they appear now.

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