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Weekly Countdown: Here's why the Pistons are capable of winning it all

5. The list. "At the beginning of the year,'' Detroit coach Flip Saunders said, "we had our first meeting, and I had each guy tell me what they could do to help us win a championship. I got all those things typed up and I keep them in my coat pocket for every game. I keep it there as a reminder, in case I ever have to pull it out to them: 'Hey, this is what you told me you were going to do.' "

Each player declared what he could do to help the Pistons win their first title since 2003-04. They spoke in front of each other, and it became a personal contract among the players and their coach.

"I'll read it before games to see the mentality of where our players were at the beginning of the year, to see where they're at [now],'' Saunders said. "Chauncey [Billups] talked about not turning down shots -- because I get on him sometimes that he turns down shots -- and knowing our game plan as far as following through on that game plan. And 'Sheed [Wallace] talked about the winner that he is, that he's not going to let his team down, that they can follow him.

"It was good that we sat in there and talked about it. You could see where they were coming from and what they thought. Jason Maxiell said, 'I'm going to bring energy, I'm going to make free throws' -- and there's a guy that improved his free-throw shooting dramatically [to 63.3 percent] from a year ago [48 percent]. It was a contract that they gave not to me but to their teammates. It was about accountability.''

And?

"They have lived up to it,'' Saunders said. "At times, everyone's going to veer away a little bit. But because of that [meeting], our players have been more vocal with each other, about guys not doing things, and letting them know this is what you have to do.''

4. Forget the switch. "They've always talked about the switch,'' Saunders said. "About being able to turn the switch on, turn the heat on, and go from playing average to all of a sudden playing great.''

Detroit has reached the Eastern Conference finals for a sixth straight year, a streak last achieved by Magic Johnson's Lakers in the 1980s. And yet the accusation endures that the Pistons routinely take nights off, that arrogance gets the best of them. That suspicion results from their losses as the No. 1 seed in the last two conference finals, when they yielded home-court advantage to the eventual champion Heat in 2005-06 and then blew a 2-0 lead last year to the Cavaliers, a demoralizing loss to a team the Pistons believe was inferior.

"I saw someone say, 'They've turned the switch on and off this year,' " said Pistons president Joe Dumars, who is in his 11th conference finals with Detroit as a player (five) or head executive. "Well, we won 59 games and had the second-best record in the league, so it couldn't have been 'off' that many times. Unless you thought we were capable of winning 70 games. Which I didn't.''

The idea that the Pistons flick their effort off and back on again infuriates Dumars.

"Sometimes I think we are under a different set of rules,'' he said. "We lose a game and, well, 'Those guys didn't show up, and the switch was off.' And you see other people lose games, and there is such a different standard. Are we ever allowed to lose a game where some other team just plays better than us?''

The point I'm comfortable making about the Pistons is that they've played 99 postseason games over the previous five years. As tiring as the regular season can be, they've averaged an additional 20 games per year, and those games obviously have been more demanding than, say, a December homestand against Chicago and Charlotte.

Dumars insists that Detroit's six-year run of postseason excellence is proof that the proverbial lights are always on.

"You're asking these guys to go out there and play at an elite level every second of every game, and that's just not going to happen in this league,'' he said. "There are some nights that teams are going to have your number, and they're going to make shots and you're not, and you're going to come up short. To do what we've done, sitting here six straight years, you're not turning switches off a whole lot. And so that sometimes seems to be more of the emphasis than the six straight years we've done this, and it's like, Are you kidding me?''

3. The bench. So how did the Pistons reclaim their inspiration after surrendering a trip to the NBA Finals last year?

"You've got to be truthful and honest and make an unvarnished assessment of your team,'' Dumars said. "Here's the conclusion that I came to: that we were playing our starters too many minutes. We did not have enough youth and athleticism on our team, and we weren't deep enough. So I sat down with Flip and talked about how we have to cut our starters' minutes back. If we want to continue at this pace, that's what we have to do.

"The second thing is -- and this one's on me -- I've got to make sure that we go out and get these athletic, high-energy guys, because that was missing as well when I watched us play. Not only were the starters tired, but when we turned to the bench, it wasn't to high-energy guys. I don't think we could have gotten back here without cutting those minutes and adding those guys. And then you've got to make a commitment to playing them.''

The corners of the Pistons' foundation -- Billups, Richard Hamilton, Wallace and Tayshaun Prince -- averaged 3.1 fewer minutes this season. The young bench produced 29.7 points per game, a five-year high. Maxiell and rookie Rodney Stuckey have provided the energy the Pistons needed, with Stuckey's minutes as a long-sought backup to Billups especially important.

"He's extremely athletic, very talented and very instinctive in how he plays,'' Saunders said of Stuckey. "I'm very geared to a point-guard system. I give the ball to the point guard and let him make decisions. The other four guys have their jobs as far as what they do, but that point guard makes the decisions to set everybody else up. That maybe facilitated his progress a lot, because he couldn't go hide. He had to make decisions.''

2. The coach. There have been questions the last two years about Saunders' ability to relate to Detroit's veteran players who knew more about winning in the playoffs than he did. Those questions don't seem so relevant anymore. Things can change quickly in this league, but the marriage between Saunders and his team appears much stronger than the last two postseasons.

"If you've never been in this type of environment before,'' Dumars said of the annual pursuit of a championship, "then you have to get used to it. It's his third year of being in this type of environment, and any team other than San Antonio would have thought, Wow, [look at] what kind of success we've had -- 64 wins [two years ago] and [53] wins [last year] and 59 wins this year. But you have to get used to being in that environment where you hear, 'You guys didn't make it to the NBA Finals? What happened?' A lot of other organizations aren't used to that, and what we claim as success here is a lot different than what most people claim is success.

"So without a doubt, Flip has gotten a whole lot better here as opposed to when he first walked through the door. That's no knock on him, that's just reality.''

My take on Saunders is that he earned respect by integrating Stuckey, Maxiell, rookie guard Arron Afflalo and third-year forward Amir Johnson into the rotation. Saunders coached Billups when both were at Minnesota in 2000-02, but the rest of the Pistons viewed its new coach as a kind of rookie. There was no area in which he could improve a peaking roster that had reached successive NBA Finals under Larry Brown. It was too easy to regard him as a caretaker rather than a leader.

This year, however, Saunders improved the team by working the young players into the rotation and elevating their play to a level of championship contention. The older players needed help off the bench, Saunders provided it for them, and the Pistons wouldn't be back in the conference finals without him. He needed something to do, some way to make an impact, and the young bench provided that opportunity.

Over the second half of the year, Saunders began to bench his young players after making a single turnover -- getting them ready for the high demands they would face during the playoffs, when one error can ruin the season. It says a lot about Saunders' coaching ability that Stuckey, a rookie who missed the first seven weeks of this season with a broken left hand, was able to come off the bench in Game 2 of the conference finals Thursday and play a terrific 17 minutes (13 points, three assists) in relief of Billups while making one big play after another to help the Pistons even the series and seize home-court advantage.

"We were playing in Atlanta [in February] and I was on Stuckey pretty hard,'' Saunders said. "We called a timeout and he goes, 'You're yelling at me, but you're not on Chauncey all the time.' And I told him, 'That's because I was on Chauncey six years ago.' "

1. The drive. Detroit and Boston appear to be evenly matched, but I give the Pistons the edge in two areas. They know each other far better than do the Celtics -- as proved by Boston's difficulties in finding a meaningful postseason role for Ray Allen -- and that will be a crucial advantage as the series progresses. I also think the Pistons will emerge as the hungrier team, not only because they've wasted opportunities to win championships the past two years, but also because of the commitments they've made all season to reach this stage of the playoffs. They (as only the Spurs can empathize) understood how difficult it is to win a championship and that few outsiders believed they had it in them, but they went for it anyway. The Celtics may yet prove me wrong, but I'm thinking that Detroit has more to lose in this series than Boston.

4. I've never thought that a well-rested team has an advantage. Look at the Rockies last year vs. the Red Sox in the World Series. I think you lose momentum, and you get out of synch. It's like having a mini-preseason. You practice and practice without playing any real games, then you play a "real" game and you look lost. So, even though the Celtics have played the maximum number of games in the playoffs, I believe that they are still "fresher."-- Sean, China, Maine

Let's see how the series plays out. The Celtics were sharp in Game 1, but coach Doc Rivers admitted that fatigue overtook them in their Game 2 loss. In the West, the Spurs' momentum didn't carry them past the third quarter before they blew a 20-point lead to the rested Lakers.

3. Do you think LeBron James could be even better and more disciplined if he played in a structured offense? I look at how far he's come on the defensive end since Mike Brown instilled structure there and I think, considering he started with much more of a handicap at that end, he's probably made more progress on defense than on offense. It makes me wonder what he could do with that kind of structure on the other end of the court.-- Spencer, Cleveland

He would be even better if he played with better players. It's clear that he wants to play more often in the open court, and that he looks forward to sharing the ball with teammates who not only spread the floor for him but also enable him to create plays with his exceptional vision for passing. Basically, he wants to win championships, and he can't do it with this team. But the Cavs know this -- that's why they acquired $30 million in expiring contracts to apply to trades over the coming year.

2. Can any of the current Pistons players make the case for the Hall of Fame? Rasheed Wallace seems to have the numbers and mystique, but will his attitude affect the vote? Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton have been consistently solid, but they never reached the "superstar" status.-- Garrett S., Davis, Calif.

That's a good question. The way it looks now, the only championship team in the history of the league that may not produce a Hall of Famer is the 1978-79 Sonics. Dennis Johnson and Paul Silas have a chance of being inducted from that Seattle team, though each would be honored more for his work as a Celtic than as a Sonic. As for the Pistons' 2003-04 championship team, I'm assuming that Ben Wallace will reach the Hall of Fame in recognition of his championship ring as well as four selections each as an All-Star and NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

But where does that leave Billups, Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince? Each may need to win another championship in order to be judged Hall-worthy for his team play rather than by the individual stats, which each of them has sacrificed in pursuit of the greater good. (If Rasheed is seen as the difference-maker and most talented player on two or more championship teams, then I think concerns about his attitude will be dismissed. And yes, I'm expecting to receive a lot of angry e-mails for that one.)

1. If you think that the NCAA rules are "criminal," then what is your proposed revenue sharing system? Any money flow to NCAA players that is increased yet limited will need the same thick rule book to stop agents and boosters trying to get an edge. So the same problems would exist, but the number of college programs (and players' scholarships) would be reduced in proportion to these payments. If you allow an open market, then college basketball would become some sort of minor league that may well die. So for the sake of a tiny number of stars, you would destroy the enjoyment and free education that thousands of college players now receive. I think it is unfair to make players wait a year to go to the NBA, but that is as much an issue for the NBA as the NCAA. Even when players could make that choice, we seemed to get the same scandals, maybe partly because people are dismissive of the rules without acknowledging the consequences of removing them.-- Bruce Burns, Phoenix

Is this a bad system? Yes, because it is set up to disperse money to everyone except the players who -- more than anyone -- bring in that money. What would be a better system? I don't know that answer. All I know is that it's not right for a sport that generates billions of dollars to invent a thick tangle of rules to prevent players from receiving any money, especially when so many of those players and their families need it desperately.

The colleges don't necessarily have to pay players. They could simply allow players to receive money from boosters or other sources so that it is no longer delivered under the table. Anecdotally, we know Illegal payments to players are widespread in major college basketball (and football). The only way to stop the rule-breaking is to do away with the stupid rule. Decriminalize it. If coaches can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars for outfitting their players with a certain brand of sneakers, then why shouldn't the players be allowed to receive money too?

3. "It's something I don't really think about or worry about.''-- Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, on the possibility of LeBron leaving as a free agent in 2010.

He shouldn't be fretting in a panicky way, but I can guarantee you he frets passionately. It's obvious that James not only badly wants to win championships but also that he's capable of doing so -- just look how far he has carried these Cavs over the last three postseasons.

In 2006, LeBron signed a shortened three-year extension. He negotiated a deal that can set him free in 2010 for a couple of reasons: As a seven-year veteran, he'll be able to demand a salary worth 30 percent of the team salary cap (as opposed to the 25 percent he can receive before 2010), and he'll also be able to jump to a more competitive franchise if he doesn't have faith in the Cavs to build a title team around him. If he leaves, the value of the franchise shrinks. There is nothing wrong with Gilbert fretting about the future in a constructive way that means to build a championship contender that James can't afford to leave.

2. "That's over with and in the past as far as we're concerned, and our league is concerned, hopefully.''-- Doc Rivers on allegations by Tim Donaghy's lawyer that players and coaches have had relationships with referees that influence games.

With all due respect to Rivers -- who doesn't feel comfortable speaking on behalf of the league on this topic; he was responding politely to a question -- no one should assume this scandal is behind the NBA. That would, in fact, be absolutely the wrong conclusion to draw. Once Donaghy has been sentenced and the details of his sports-betting relationships have been made public, the league needs to provide a compelling and comprehensive explanation of how a referee was able to engage in this kind of behavior for an extended period of time, and what is going to be done to prevent it from happening again.

It may appear as if fans have paid little attention to the Donaghy scandal, but be assured that sports bettors around the country understand its implications. The NBA was surprised by the criminal activities of its disgraced referee, and fans of all kinds must be convinced that constructive reforms are being created to avoid further surprises to come.

1. "Jon Lester?''-- Leigh Montville, best-selling author

I live in Boston, and on Monday I woke up realizing I had four tickets to the Red Sox game that night. This is a true story. I called many people to invite them to join us, and half of them had a valid reason for not coming. The other half wanted to know who was pitching.

Jon Lester, I said.

"You know, I haven't been feeling well. I think I'm going to stay in tonight.''

"I should really be spending more time with the family.''

"Jon Lester? I'll pass.'' Laughing as they said this, like I was trying to pull something over.

The one person who showed half-hearted interest was Montville, whose new book, The Mysterious Montague: A True Tale of Hollywood, Golf, and Armed Robbery, is the best book on golf I have ever read. So when everyone else turned me down, I called Montville again to ask if he really cared to go, because if he was as ambivalent as he'd sounded then we would just take our two kids despite it being a school night.

"I was 50-50 on going,'' admitted Montville, who said he wanted to stay home and watch the Spurs-Hornets Game 7.

Plus, I said, you probably didn't want to watch Jon Lester.

"Yeah, Jon Lester ...''

So the four of us went that night to see Jon Lester throw a 130-pitch no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals less than two years after he completed treatment for cancer. It might be the most amazing athletic performance I will ever see. The next morning this e-mail was waiting for me:

OK, so I figure I have seen well over 1,000 major-league baseball games in person. I HAVE NEVER SEEN A NO-HITTER!

My lawyer will be contacting you sometime this morning.

Indignantly,

Montville

Let me assure my readers that my insistent plugging of Montville's latest and finest work is not intended to discourage legal action, but rather is done as a public service, to encourage people to read a compelling and hilarious story about a golfer who was hitting 300-yard drives in the 1930s as best friend to Bing Crosby and other Hollywood celebrities before his previously mysterious identity was exposed in a trial of the century.

One other thing I haven't mentioned is that we had received these tickets from my sister-in-law, who agreed to trade nights with us only because I had been forced to miss a Red Sox game the previous week while covering the NBA playoffs. This turned out to be a good break for us, obviously, but not for my sister-in-law. And so moments after the final pitch was thrown, while the players were dancing in a big scrum near the mound, my wife handed her phone to our 12-year-old son to call his generous aunt `"so she could hear the roar of the crowd,'' and before he could say a word in all the ambient noise of 37,000 people clapping and cheering, he thought he heard something that sounded like her voice yelling into the phone: "You shuck!''

Let me add that the reason we live in Boston is to expose our children to their relatives who live here. Because family is everything.

2. Derrick Rose needs somebody to pass to. If Rose slides to the Heat at No. 2 in the draft, he'll look better in Miami passing to Dwyane Wade and Shawn Marion than he would in Chicago passing to Luol Deng and Ben Gordon. But here's what the Bulls need to be asking: How many of the great point guards have won a championship? Of course Tony Parker is excellent, but he has never been ranked among the top three point guards of this era. Billups wasn't seen as an elite point guard when he quarterbacked a team to the title. Neither were Jason Williams, Derek Fisher, Avery Johnson or John Paxson, who was Michael Jordan's point guard nearly 20 years ago and is now the Bulls' general manager charged with making the No. 1 pick. Paxson should know better than anyone the qualities mandatory for a championship team, and an All-Star point guard isn't among them.

1. Beasley has the talent to become a top 10 player. Those are the guys who win championships. Beasley isn't LeBron James, but a lot of personnel scouts believe that he is the biggest talent in this draft. The Bulls have a lot of good players who haven't won much of anything. They need a great player, and they should use the No. 1 pick on the prospect most likely to fill that need. If they decide that Rose is that player, then so be it. But they shouldn't decide based on his position.

1. There are a lot of conspiracy theorists in the NBA, and I hope for their sake they aren't working for the Spurs or Pistons. If so, then they have to be upset by speculation that the league would like to see the Lakers and Celtics in the Finals. They also have to know, based on recent ratings history, that a Pistons-Spurs series will draw a TV audience slightly larger than the number of people who declined my offer to watch Jon Lester's no-hitter. But I'm sure no one has anything to worry about.

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