MIAMI -- Remember what it was like, noticing for the first time that your dad was getting older? Or seeing Muhammad Ali getting beat up by Larry Holmes? Or for the youngsters, seeing the world's greatest magician, David Blaine, almost drown recently?
Pistons face another brink job
That's what it felt like watching the Detroit Pistons lose on Monday night 89-78 to the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Eastern Conference power, which has been the epitome of poise and grace in overcoming the highest of obstacles, is now on its last breath and pointing fingers. And considering that the Heat have dominated the Pistons and won seven of their past eight playoff games, winning three straight would be a miracle, even for these never-say-die Pistons.
''Every game now becomes like an NCAA Tournament game,'' Detroit coach Flip Saunders said. ''We just have to understand that we're going home and our crowd is going to have to give us that adrenaline push. As I said, strange things happen. One play can change a game. One game can change a series. Basically, what we've got to do is come up with that play at home and try to change the series.''
For much needed motivation, the Pistons should read the Cliff's Notes of recent triumphs when their backs are against the wall. After being down 3-1 to Orlando in a first round series in 2003, the Pistons came back to win the final three games. In 2004, the Pistons were down to New Jersey 3-2 in the second round before coming back to win the series. Detroit won a Game 7 on the road at Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. And in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Pistons won two do-or-die games to knock off Cleveland.
''We have to look at it as a one-game series the rest of the way,'' Detroit guard Chauncey Billups said. ''We've got to play one game and then think about the next one. If we don't focus on that one game, the season will be over.''
Making matters worse is that it was evident before Sunday's practice that the Pistons' players are at odds with Saunders at the worst time.
Some expressed unhappiness with the first-year Pistons coach's substitution patterns. Others expressed disappointment with Saunders' offense-first mentality. Also, former coach Larry Brown was praised and it was noted that he has much more playoff experience than Saunders, who has never led a team to the NBA Finals.
"As coach, I make decisions," said Saunders, prior to Game 4. "I have to live by the decisions. As players, they play and they have to implement as far as what we do." Saunders also said the Pistons are usually at their best when surrounded by drama, and better when irritable. But against this hot Heat team, that wasn't the case in Game 4, and it hasn't been for most of the East Finals.
Also, these aren't the Heat that the Pistons knocked off in a deciding East Finals Game 7 in Miami last year.
NBA All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal are doing whatever they want against the Pistons, at any time. The Heat are not only motivated to get revenge against the Pistons, but also to make their first NBA Finals since joining the league in 1988. And with high confidence, momentum and motivation on their side, the Heat are going to lose three straight now?
''We're going to do everything in our power not to have that feeling of non-competitiveness that we had last year,'' said Wade, who scored a game-high 31 points in Game 4. ''We're on the right page. But we still got a lot of basketball left.''
Said Billups: "We have been down 3-1 before, not against a team as good as the Heat, though. They're playing great, man. They're playing great ball.''
The Pistons had the NBA's best regular-season record and seemed destined for the third-straight Finals appearance. So it seems odd to begin writing their obituary with three potential Eastern Conference finals games left. But barring the greatest comeback in the history of a strong list of great comebacks in recent Pistons' history, and the NBA's overall playoff history, you might as well call the preacher and start reading this East power its last rites.
"Our backs are against the wall now, definitely,'' Pistons forward Antonio McDyess said. "If you want the definition of backs against the wall, three down, 3-1 tells it all."
Marc J. Spears covers the NBA for The Denver Post and is regular contributor to ESPN.com
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We'll be seeing Dwyane Wade's fabulous fourth-quarter flip shot (and one) on highlight reels for years. Incidentally, the three-point play gave Miami a four-point lead, and the Pistons never caught the Heat again.
As the only member of ESPN.com's NBA panel to pick the Miami Heat to win this series, I want to explain why I saw this coming. And make no mistake, the Heat are going to win this series, maybe in five games but probably in six, which would suit me just fine. Miami in six was my pick.
What factored into my choice more than anything was what I saw out of the Pistons during the last round when I covered a good portion of the Detroit-Cleveland series. It was at the Q Arena during Game 6 -- a win for Detroit -- that I lost my faith in the Pistons.
That was the game in which the Pistons grabbed three key offensive rebounds in the final minute-plus before Cleveland opted not to use its final timeout to set up a potential game-tying 3-pointer, missing its chance to close out that series.
It was as pressure-packed a moment as there has been anywhere in the NBA this postseason, and what struck me was the way the Pistons couldn't put it away. Rasheed Wallace missed two jumpers and two free throws, and Chauncey Billups also yipped a free throw that would have put the Pistons ahead by four and sealed the win.
They looked scared that night, and they were lucky to get out of there with a win. That's when I gave up on them. Scared and lucky is no way to win a title.
Another big factor was my belief that Detroit would not be able to defend Dwyane Wade, a fact that is being proven by his 70 percent shooting through the first four games.
The guy is as great a finisher as anyone in the league, and the reverse spin layup he knocked down while getting fouled early in the fourth quarter took the life out of the Pistons. They fell behind 63-61 on the three-point play, and they never led again as Miami took a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.
But as I said earlier, the life was taken out of the Pistons in the last round when LeBron James nearly knocked them out. They've been lifeless in three of the four games in the series thus far, and the plug should be pulled either Wednesday night in Auburn Hills or Friday night back in Miami.
Then I can start worrying about my other pick, Suns in seven. Might have some explaining to do on that one.
-- Chris Sheridan
Four teams remain, while 26 are looking forward to next year. Here are the prospects most likely to catch their eye before the 2006 NBA Draft, which will be held a month from yesterday.
Dwyane Wade scored 12 of his 31 points in the final quarter Monday night, leading a late charge that carried the Heat to an 89-78 win over the Detroit Pistons and a 3-1 lead in the series.
Pistons Facing Elimination
Doug Benc/Getty Images
Alonzo Mourning, Wayne Simien and Antoine Walker of the Miami Heat celebrate on the bench late in the fourth quarter.
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Dwyane Wade ends up on his back here on the first play of the game, but was standing tall by the end of the night.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Transition Defense! This is by far the biggest reason the Mavs are up 2-1 in this series. They allowed 32 points in Game 1 and they have solved their biggest dilemma. They were so good in this phase of defense that they only allowed the Suns four fast-break points in Game 3 and none in the second half. Avery Johnson and his staff have made offensive and defensive tempo such a big emphasis that his team is adhering to his instructions: Run back and dig in vs. Phoenix or lose.
The Mavs have adjusted to the Suns' style better than the Suns have to theirs. The Mavs are just the better half-court defensive team. Their defensive team principles are just better than the Suns. Both teams are in a scramble mode and the energy and hustle of the Mavs have showed up big in this series. Mavs earned this 2-1 lead by doing all the little things: loose balls, long rebounds, deflections, steals, etc. In order to beat the Suns at their game, it is imperative to win the hustle game. The Mavs have, so far.
Avery Johnson was a genius with his insertion of Devin Harris in the Spurs series. His use of DeSagana Diop in this series has been extremely effective. He used Diop in the second half of Game 3 and Diop was the X factor. Diop's presence disrupted the Suns offense. He did not allow easy drives to the basket. He has a tough assignment because of the distorted size on the court. There is no true Suns center to guard. But Diop moves his feet and sprints back on defense and was instrumental in the Mavs winning Game 3.
Is anyone going back to school?
Why has there been such a rush to hire agents so early in the process?
A couple of reasons:
One, players are finding that the new NCAA rules on keeping your draft eligibility are too stringent.
Players are now forced to pay for any workout expenses up front. In the past, they could reimburse teams for expenses after the fact.
Players are also finding, in the wake of the Randolph Morris scandal last year, which arose over the question of whether he had hired an agent, that it's almost impossible to simply have an advisor for the draft anymore. The rules create a lot of chaos, because players need agents to gather information for them from teams on the draft, workouts, and the like -- and yet hiring an agent ends a player's college eligibility.
Two, this is one of the weakest drafts in recent memory. Players will go 15 to 20 places higher in some cases than they normally would. That's a great incentive to be in the draft this year.
Next year's draft, on paper, looks like one of the best ever. We could name 10 guys who would be ranked ahead of the top four or five prospects in this draft.