- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - They didn't just beat the Lakers. The Detroit Pistons stunned the favorites in the NBA Finals ... and then became the Lakers.
The kind of team that apparently thinks it can get through an 82-game season by flicking the On/Off button on the locker-room wall.
"I've heard that a lot, and a lot of times we have been doing that," Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said. "That's why our record is what it is."
"Last year we were the underdogs," said Rip Hamilton, Billups' backcourt mate. "Nobody believed that we could do it. Now we're every team's championship game. Teams are definitely coming out a lot more aggressive, with a lot more effort. We've got to start matching that."
"I call it light-switch basketball," Pistons reserve Darvin Ham said.
Whatever you call it, on-and-off intensity is one of a litany of ills that have plagued the defending champions throughout their own tumultuous season. As they reunite with the Indiana Pacers Friday for the teams' first meeting at The Palace of Auburn Hills since their night of shared infamy in November, be advised that the Pacers aren't the only ones who have suffered in the aftermath.
Detroit's depths don't compare to Indiana's, of course, but the 42-25 Pistons have struggled plenty. As recently as this week, in fact. For at least the third time this season, they've sputtered anew after a roll that made observers -- and Pistons players -- think they were finally approaching playoff form. Lopsided road losses Tuesday and Wednesday in Cleveland and Philadelphia have the champs questioning themselves again.
"We've just been real inconsistent," Billups said. "We get it going and everything is rolling and then we hit another speed bump. It's been a roller-coaster season.
"With us winning the championship and bringing back most of our better players, people don't expect for us to go through stretches like that. We've raised the bar for ourselves. Everyone expects us to roll."
The good news? The boss doesn't.
Ask Pistons president Joe Dumars to explain why the Pistons have never looked capable of morphing into a 60-win juggernaut and he'll patiently remind you of Larry Brown's season-long health struggles, the early absence of Ben Wallace after the death of his brother and the Pistons' own post-brawl funk.
No matter what pressures Billups and the other Pistons feel, they were never coming from Dumars. That's because Dumars knows first-hand how hard it is to get through those 82 games after winning a championship. He knows how easy it is to feel as invincible as the Lakers did in the Shaq-and-Kobe era, believing you're never more than a flipped switch away from a hot streak.
Dumars, remember, was a key member of the Pistons' 1989-90 squad, which got off to a similarly ordinary start after their first title. Those Bad Boys were 18-11 on Jan. 1 before going on to repeat, which isn't a lot better than the 15-13 record sported by these Pistons when 2005 arrived.
"I figured we wouldn't come out of the gates at top speed, but I did figure that we would gradually build [momentum] just as we did last year," Dumars said. "I like my team a lot. I have great faith in them. I believe that, when the time comes, we'll be there."
Fact is, at 42-25, Detroit is actually a game better than it was after 67 games last season. And while Dumars was never going to be able to swing a trade like he did at the 2004 deadline -- acquiring Rasheed Wallace for the stretch run -- his recent acquisition of Carlos Arroyo from Utah has helped fortify an unexpected weakness: Detroit's bench.
With Arroyo and a reborn Antonio McDyess, Detroit now has a couple weapons in reserve. Defensive specialist Tayshaun Prince, meanwhile, has thrust himself into the heart of most-mproved player consideration by implementing his active arms and wingspan for improved offensive production.
The Pistons' defense, incidentally, remains one of the two most feared in the league along with San Antonio's, in spite of the new tighter officiating on the perimeter. The Pistons and Spurs are the only two teams holding opponents under 90 points per game.
The disclaimer? Detroit has allowed teams to crack 100 points 16 times this season, compared to just four times last season. In other words, they've switched off far too often for Brown's liking.
"We've had a bad habit this season of playing to the level of our competition," Ham said. "Hopefully we'll be getting [coach] LB back soon. I'm sure he'll have a lot to say."
There's a chance that Brown, away from the team for the past seven games because of bladder surgery related to his November hip surgery, will return for Friday's rematch with the Pacers. If not, he should be back next week.
It should be noted, furthermore, that the Pistons haven't been all bad without him, extending their current home win streak to 12 entering Friday's play -- the Pistons haven't lost at home since Jan. 22.
Team sources say Brown has been a second-half spark in the most unlikely fashion. Those sources report that it was Pistons players, more than management, who fumed when Brown seemed willing to discuss future job possibilities with the Knicks and Lakers. Although Brown has since said, repeatedly, that Detroit will be his last pro-coaching stop, the flirtations were described by one source as "the last straw for our team -- we just took on an us-against-the-world mentality after."
The result was a 27-10 record since Jan. 1 before this week's back-to-back setbacks.
But Billups, for one, won't go as far as saying the Pistons have been playing well in spite of Brown, nor does he necessarily believe the consensus view that Brown, 64, will be leaving Detroit at season's end. The point guard, who has clashed with the demanding coach more than any other player, says he hopes he stays.
"Larry's been great for us," Billups said. "He's done what he came here to do, and that's win a championship, but we feel like we can continue to do that with Coach Brown."
He also hopes the rest of the East is fooled into thinking that the Pistons will be playing that light-switch basketball in the playoffs, too. Billups was quick to point out that Detroit is on course to meet Indiana in Round 1, which pretty much guarantees that there won't be an energy shortage once the NBA tournament starts.
"I know we won't take anybody lightly," he said. "I don't think we're going to win every game. People probably expect us to sweep the early series, and I don't think it'll be like that. We've learned that all season. But I think we'll be fine."
"I wouldn't bet against us," Ham added.
Last season, the Pistons beat the Lakers. Now they've adopted the Lakers' casual approach to the regular season.