Scott Howard-Cooper
Wednesday April 22nd, 2009

Five observations from the night the end came into focus for the Pistons, the night the end came out of nowhere for Dikembe Mutombo, and the night the Lakers missed another chance to show the proper playoff attitude:

1. Farewell, Pistons. What had been apparent much of a disappointing regular season moved a predictable step closer to becoming official with the punching-bag loss at Cleveland that all but ends their 2008-09 and in the process ends one of the great runs of the generation.

Six consecutive trips to at least the conference finals is a major accomplishment that conceivably will not be duplicated in an era of constant roster movement and frequent coaching changes. The deeper Detroit legacy is having gone six for six, while winning the title once and losing in the Finals another time, without a superstar or even an automatic All-Star, the kind of player usually required to consistently drive a club through the playoffs.

In those six years, the champion Spurs had Tim Duncan and great playoff moments by either Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili, the champion Heat had Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal and the champion Celtics had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The champion Pistons of 2004 did not have one player average more than 18 points a game and only one player shoot better than 47 percent, reserve Corliss Williamson, yet went 16-7 in the postseason and beat L.A. so badly that it pushed the Lakers into rebuilding mode.

Plus, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, along with Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace for much of the time, held together through three coaching changes -- Rick Carlisle to Larry Brown to Flip Saunders. It was a run unlike any other. And now, after Tuesday night in Cleveland, it's all but over.

2. Most series aren't altered by an injury to someone who averaged 10.7 minutes in nine appearances in the regular season before going 18 in Game 1, but Dikembe Mutombo isn't most people.

He is incredibly popular and incredibly respected in the locker room, not to mention around the entire league, so one issue for the Rockets moving forward is how well they respond to seeing Mutombo agonizing on the court in a reaction that indicated a serious knee injury. The 18-year veteran said after the game that his career was over, an emotional blow for the entire team.

What happened after he left the game at Portland was encouraging. Mutombo crumpled with 1:17 left in the first quarter and the Rockets leading 24-20, close enough that it would be impossible to connect the eventual 107-103 loss to Houston's mood, but several stretches after that signaled a focused team.

3. Two games, two big Lakers leads evaporated. Not the sign of a team capable of stepping on an opponent's throat, a playoff necessity at some point. It's how a heavy favorite can be up 2-0 against Utah and still have pressing issues.

4. That was a nice Tuesday for LeBron James. Finishing second in the media vote for Defensive Player of the Year doesn't carry the credibility of the coaches' ballot for All-Defense and is nothing compared to the MVP announcement that should come in a week or so, but the initial result is a definite image boost for James in a season in which he made improving his defense a priority. If the coaches agree, and many have noted his gains, LBJ will officially be a complete player.

5. Wednesday's schedule. Hawks against the Heat, Nuggets against the Hornets, and Magic against themselves. The 76ers will be on the court as well, but Orlando vs. Orlando has become one of the intriguing playoff showdowns, the team unable to find its heart against the potential of a long playoff run. Watcha got, Magic?

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