- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

Whatever is ailing the Pistons, it is threatening to end their season before their third consecutive engagement in the NBA Finals next month.

That would put them in the disappointed company of the Spurs, already waylaid by an improbable antagonist.

The two teams convinced many NBA commentators the postseason would be their invitational tournament until the opposition elected not to blink before the conventional wisdom.

The Pistons find themselves in the clutches of an awful funk and have a game to come out of it. Otherwise, a daunting 3-1 deficit is the fate before the Pistons.

Unlike the Spurs, who played well in defeat, the Pistons have lost the sense of dominance that marked their 70-win pace in the first half of the season.

That burst removed all doubt in the regular season and enabled the Pistons to wallow in an anxiety-free cocoon the last two months.

It amounted to an extended preseason schedule and time enough for a team to lose its edge.

As the Pistons have discovered, reclaiming that edge is no simple proposition.

And so the Pistons trail the Heat 2-1 not so much because of the excellence of the Heat but because of their stupor.

This glaring state did not just manifest itself against the Heat. It was all too present in the Pistons’ seven-game series with the Cavaliers.

The urge to question the brain power of coach Flip Saunders is predictable.

Fair or not, coaches are inevitably judged by the expectations in their midst. And Saunders unleashed those expectations soon after he unleashed the Pistons on offense.

He was deemed the anti-Larry Brown, who sometimes admonishes his personnel “to play the right way” while negotiating with his next employer.

This staggering level of hypocrisy never worked against Brown until the Knicks tuned him out. Give the Knicks that. They refused to heed the words of the hypocrite.

Saunders has not been negotiating with potential suitors in secret during these playoffs, so far as anyone knows.

He is tending to the business of a self-doubting, emotionally fatigued team that knows its season will be labeled a failure if it concludes before the NBA Finals.

This is partly the fault of Saunders, whose tinkering allowed the Pistons to be so formidable in November and December.

That stretch was as dominant as the Pistons ever have been in their four-season period among the elite.

Until then, the Pistons forged much of who they were on ample doses of grit and perseverance. They were not necessarily the most gifted team. They were one of the most resilient ones.

Now the Pistons are playing against a team built solely for this moment.

Pat Riley remade the Heat, in effect, because of the injury to Dwyane Wade in the conference finals last spring.

This confused all too many NBA observers, especially after Riley added the potentially odoriferous trio of Gary Payton, Antoine Walker and Jason Williams.

That came out to one ex-Glove, one ex-All-Star and one ex-White Chocolate, hardly a reassuring infusion.

But who can criticize the Armani-clad Riley now?

Payton has not lost the chip on his shoulder, Walker has not gained a conscience on his shot selection, and the erstwhile White Chocolate no longer whips behind-the-back passes to those sitting courtside.

The Heat still revolve around Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, but the contributions of the three in the playoffs cannot be minimized, as the Pistons would attest.

Worse for the Pistons, Riley has taken to employing the hack-a-Shaq ploy on Ben Wallace, who has descended into child-like incompetence at the free throw line.

He could shoot his free throws blindfolded and do no worse than making one out of five.

That, too, is sucking the breath out of the Pistons.

They appear to be out of answers in a season that once seemed destined to be a confirmation of their worthiness.

They packed away their edge somewhere along the NBA trail and now they have forgotten where it is.

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