Cavs' impressive poise leaves Pistons in a daze

Updated: May 19, 2006, 8:13 PM ET
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN Insider

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.

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 may 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 their tight first-round series against Washington. He had asked them 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 stay 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 quick, 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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