AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- As the crowd filed silently out of the Palace in stunned disbelief, Antonio McDyess remained seated on the Pistons' bench for two, three, then four minutes, staring blankly into space when he wasn't burying his head in his hands.
Mighty Pistons take a fall
He couldn't believe it, the fans couldn't fathom it, and everyone around the NBA is having a hard time coming to grips with it, too.
The mighty Detroit Pistons are on the brink of going home for the summer, and all of their swagger, overconfidence and nonchalance has suddenly turned into fear, tightness and despair.
"We've done enough talking. We may have done a little too much talking," Ben Wallace said afterward, sitting dejectedly at his locker. "It's time to play."
Actually, Ben, the time to play was earlier in the evening, and the Pistons we've come to know and respect all year didn't show up. That team that streaked to 37 wins the first 42 games and put it on cruise control through the second half of the season somehow has morphed into a shell of its former self, becoming tentative and stagnant at a time when they're supposed to be summoning their experience and aplomb to knock off the upstart Cavaliers after dropping Games 3 and 4.
So where was that charisma? Where was that stone-cold killer instinct? Where were the Pistons we've come to know, the guys who've put the hammer down every time they've needed to?
"Tonight we looked tight, and that's definitely unlike us," said Tayshaun Prince, whose inability to stop Drew Gooden from scoring underneath after receiving a precision pass from LeBron James with 27.8 seconds left provided the Cavs with the winning points in their stunning 86-84 victory Wednesday night that sent them back to Cleveland with a 3-2 lead over the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions.
The lion's share of the poise in this game belonged to the Cavs, especially their 21-year-old superstar who threaded the biggest pass of the game to Gooden after big men Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas had fouled out. That bucket made it 86-84, and the tension and concern throughout the arena, which had been palpable all night, got transferred to the home team.
The Pistons had three subsequent chances to tie it or win it, but Donyell Marshall blocked Prince's drive, Lindsey Hunter -- playing because Mr. Big Shot himself, Chauncey Billups, had fouled out with 2:12 remaining -- missed a jumper, and Richard Hamilton failed to get off a final attempt after receiving the last inbounds pass with 1.9 seconds remaining.
The Cavs stormed off the court celebrating the franchise's biggest victory in more than a decade, leaving them one win away from advancing to play the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. But as giddy as they were, the Cavs also were realists. They might be shocking the basketball world, but the shock won't be complete until one more victory is secured.
"We can't feel comfortable about this," said James, who scored 22 of his 32 points in the first half before the Pistons got extra aggressive in sending a second defender at him. Ilgauskas backed him with his best game of the series -- 14 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks -- and Marshall added 14 points and 13 rebounds.
Detroit, an 11-point favorite, had seven turnovers and seven field goals in the fourth quarter, getting little from anyone except McDyess (5-for-5 with six rebounds in the period).
Asked where the Cavs' poise was coming from, and why they weren't showing any fear or intimidation, James wondered aloud whether the questioner was serious. His team had taken a detour to St. Louis between Games 4 and 5 to attend the funeral of Larry Hughes' younger brother, and the experience of sharing in the mourning with their teammate had given them a new perspective on what's important. A tough time is not an 0-2 deficit, a tough time is watching a teammate try to comfort his mother as she buried a son who spent only 20 years on this Earth.
"We're all grown men, and this is just basketball," James said. "It's not life and death, and it's not like they're the big bad wolf and we're the three little pigs. We all lace our shoes up the same way."
Cavs coach Mike Brown said the team had adopted a "bunker mentality" while learning a few lessons about close games from its tight first-round series against Washington. He had asked his players going into Game 5 to defend the 3-point line, limit their own turnovers and keep the Pistons off the offensive boards, and he was satisfied by the way they had fulfilled the first two of those three wishes.
"It was great to see that guys stayed composed. At any point during that fourth quarter stretch we could have collapsed, but our guys fought and found a way to win. Every game for us going forward is a learning experience," Brown said. "We got our behinds kicked in Game 1, and we learned from it and grew from it. We learned at what level we have to play at."
It's the same level that the Pistons have forgotten how to play at.
And if they don't remember it quickly, there's a whole summer ahead to be spent staring disbelievingly into space, just as McDyess was doing in the immediate moments after a shocking Game 5 went into the books.
Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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Mavs guard Jerry Stackhouse would like to get the ball, but bearing the burden of Manu Ginobili made the task difficult in the Game 5 98-97 loss to the Spurs.
You couldn't quite call it a celebration. It was a birthday, yes, but it was commemorated with a collective exhale more than anything.
The prevailing emotion Wednesday when Tony Parker turned 24?
From the San Antonio side ... relief.
There was certainly great satisfaction, too, for Parker and his teammates, who rose from the brink of elimination to extend what Mavs coach Avery Johnson, after yet another thriller, unashamedly called "the Western Conference finals." The Spurs, though, weren't exactly chirping as they soaked in a 98-97 triumph in this season-saving Game 5.
How could they?
Tim Duncan responded to his first career omission from the All-NBA first team by sinking his first 12 shots. Parker gritted through his twin thigh bruises -- and his snub from the All-NBA third team -- to get inside with more success than either of the little Dallas drivers (Devin Harris and Jason Terry). Manu Ginobili popped up at crunch time with a couple of his loose-ball specials, robbing Dallas of three crucial possessions in the final two minutes. Then Bruce Bowen helped preserve the victory with a stealth suffocation of Dirk Nowitzki's free-throw line jumper, with Nowitzki admitting later that he never saw Bowen lurking.
Problem was, for everything the Spurs had on a night when they also managed to hold the Mavs under 100 points, it added up to a one-point win.
"Good to give them a little bit of adversity," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Good, indeed, if San Antonio actually did.
We won't know for sure until seeing how the Mavericks handle Friday's Game 6 on their floor, knowing that a loss would bring this second-round classic back to San Antonio for a Game 7 decider Monday. But it's tough to imagine Dallas suddenly shrinking under the weight of a close-out opportunity after it repeatedly refused to go away here, in a Game 5 bearing no resemblance to the rout Phoenix inflicted upon the Lakers in Round 1 that launched the Suns' comeback from 3-1 down.
"There's no pressure on them," said San Antonio's Michael Finley, rejecting the reflex postgame theory that the team which staves off elimination can change the whole complexion of a series.
That team certainly can, but that's easier to believe when you don't have to survive two potential game-winning shots: Terry's baseline jumper and Nowitzki's attempt to tip Terry's air ball in.
"They're a confident team," Finley said.
As for the Spurs?
"Our confidence is fine," Parker said, perhaps too relieved to say it any stronger.
-- Marc Stein at the AT&T Center in San Antonio
Readers react to Eric Neel's story on the Suns-Clippers Game 5 overtime thriller:
Funny you said that asked the readers if they stayed up till the end of the Clippers-Suns game. I actually had to go to work midway through the second OT -- I live in Israel, it was about 8:55 a.m. Talk about bad jobs. P.S. Great game.
That was probably the best playoff game in Phoenix since Rex Chapman hit that running three against San Antonio. Great game . . . but. Why is Daniel Ewing in with 1.1 left guarding the only good 3-point shooter of the night? He plays only one second, and Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy chooses THAT second? Why can't Elton Brand go baseline?
One of the joys of having a two-week old kid is a mandatory reason to stay up and watch a double-overtime West Coast playoff game. That Suns game was epic and enjoyable to the last second, but it seems like it was decided as much by who would make the last mistake, as much as who would make the last big shot. The mistakes seemed to even themselves out, such as Sam Cassell matching Steve Nash's quick 3 without a pass, Shaun Livingston matching Nash's turnovers, etc. The Suns had an excuse, not having two days off in a row (it seems) for the entire playoffs. Can the Clippers fall back on fatigue, or did they just choke?
All the comments about the refs in the Mavs/Spurs series are a joke. The bottom line is that both teams have received bad calls in all four games thus far. The test of a championship team is whether you come back from those calls. This year, the Mavs won the games they used to lose. Give them some credit instead of blaming refs for San Antonio's failures. Last time I checked, games lasted more than 1 (or 3) plays.
Cleveland showed the kind of poise normally thought to be the domain of Detroit. Friday, the Cavs aim for a series clincher at home.
Cavs Win 86-84, Pull Ahead 3-2
Duane Burleson/AP Photo
Antonio McDyess (11 points, 11 rebounds) lingers on the Pistons bench after the game, stunned by the Game 5 loss to the Cavs.
Quote of the Day
Whoa! Notable From ESPN Research
-- Andrew Ayres
Fast facts and thoughts from Game 5 of the Interstate 35 Series:
• In five games, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has started five different lineups. Wednesday's change restored Manu Ginobili to the first five in place of Brent Barry, with Manu joining fellow swingmen Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley alongside point guard Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. "The lineup we're in now seems to be working the best," said Duncan, supporting Pop's decision to abandon San Antonio's usual two-center alignment in attempt to keep up with the Mavs.
• Dirk Nowitzki's 3-pointer with 3:17 to play, tying the game at 95-95, was Nowitzki's first triple of the series in five attempts.
• The only two elimination games San Antonio had won in the Duncan era before this one: Game 7 of the NBA Finals against Detroit last spring and Game 5 in 2002's first round against Seattle. The Spurs are now 3-5 in playoff games that can end their season since Duncan's arrival in 1997.
• Throw out Dallas' Game 2 rout and the other four games in this series have been decided by nine points. Dallas' only two losses this postseason, both in this series, were decided by a total of three points.
• Nowitzki second-guessed himself for not trying to catch-and-shoot Jason Terry's air ball on the Mavs' final possession, instead of just trying to tip it volleyball-style, but he was absolved from blame by Terry. "With 2.4 seconds left, I settled for a fadeaway jumper," Terry said. "With that kind of time, I can dribble from [the baseline] and get to the basket. That is inexcusable. I also turned the ball over with 34 seconds left, so tonight the blame falls squarely on me. Not Dirk, not anybody else, me."
-- Marc Stein at AT&T Center in San Antonio
There was no mistaking the redness in LeBron James' eyes or the softness in his voice.
The visitors' locker room at the Pepsi Center in Denver was quiet and still on that night in January as James tried to explain, perhaps even to himself, what was happening.
The Cavaliers had just lost a one-point game to the Denver Nuggets, their third loss by two points or less in a three-game span on what turned out to be a brutal six-game Western trip.
James had failed to deliver in all three, be it missing a potential game-winning shot against the Lakers or passing on chances to take another in Portland and on this night against the Nuggets.
It was at that rock bottom that James and the Cavs turned around their season, a rebound that has carried them to a stunning 3-2 lead over the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Since losing those three tight games, the Cavs have become the NBA's best clutch team. Their 86-84 win over the Pistons in Game 5 marked the 18th time in the last 20 tries they've won a game decided by four points or less. They won six one-point games in a row, including three in their first-round series victory over the Wizards, and five two-point games in a row, including Games 4 and 5 against the Pistons.
"I hear people on sports shows," Hawks GM Billy Knight told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "and I think that person has as much business talking about basketball as I do running the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."
For a guy who's never presided over a playoff team in his five years as a GM, Knight sure acts like he knows what he's doing.
Maybe, just maybe, he might.
The Hawks rebuilding plan may not be quite as bad as it seems.
Several sources claim Knight has been jonesing over Italian forward Andrea Bargnani, a 7-foot combo forward who some scouts say is the closest thing they've seen to Dirk Nowitzki.
Remember, it was Knight who, while working for the Grizzlies, orchestrated the trade in 2001 that sent Shareef Abdur-Rahim to the Hawks for the No. 3 pick in the draft. Knight selected Pau Gasol with that pick. At the time he was the highest draft pick ever for a European player straight out of Europe.
I think Bargnani is a great prospect -- maybe the best prospect in the draft. The problem is that Bargnani plays the same position that Marvin Williams -- the Hawks' 2005 first-round draft pick -- Al Harrington and Josh Smith do: small forward.