AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Flip Saunders did not mince words in summing up the state of the Detroit Pistons. Their confidence is shaken, their mood is down and their hopes are not high.
"Our mojo has kind of disappeared a little bit," Saunders said Tuesday, elucidating what has become obvious to anyone who has watched the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions trudge through the first four games of their conference finals series against the Miami Heat.
The Pistons are down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, on the brink of having their season end in May for the first time in three years. Their well-documented resiliency is about to be put to the ultimate test as they try to keep their season alive.
Saunders gave the Pistons the day off after they arrived back from Miami at nearly 4 a.m., though players were expected to come in on their own to shoot and pick up videotapes of what hasn't worked in the series (especially against Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade) and what has. The former has certainly outweighed the latter.
"Right now, we're just not functioning very good," Saunders said. "We're not playing how we play. It's like we've gotten behind the eight ball a little bit, and guys are trying to do things too much on their own instead of relying and trusting their teammates, and that's going to be our big emphasis going into Game 5, to try to get that back."
The mood around Detroit was bleak the day after the Pistons lost 89-78 in Game 4. Miami received 31 points from Wade, who is shooting over 70 percent in the series, and 21 points from O'Neal, who is on the verge of going back to the Finals for the first time since 2004, when he wore a Lakers jersey for the final time as the Pistons finished off a five-game triumph over Los Angeles that precipitated the breakup of the Shaq-Kobe-Karl Malone-Gary Payton roster.
The Pistons won that series and reached the Finals last season on the strength of their team play; the talents of five players working together trumping the individual abilities of whichever one or two superstars came their way. But that formula is not working for Detroit anymore, and the Pistons' latest brush with adversity spawned a round of finger-pointing and blame-gaming in which several players publicly questioned Saunders' strategies and tendencies.
"I had some guys come up, I'm not going to say who they are, and said they didn't think it was right," Saunders said. "But as coaches you have to make decisions, and you have to live with it.
"Deep down inside, players know just like coaches know. Everyone knows what's going on. Until the Cleveland series the team had not had any bumps. So we went 7½ months with no bumps. And when you have some bumps, what happens, you get a little frustrated and all of a sudden you're trying to catch yourself. But you find things out about everybody, and it makes you stronger."
Saunders indicated the Pistons will go away from their usual man-to-man coverage and employ a zone, hoping to duplicate some of the success they had in the third quarter Monday night, when they held Wade without a field goal. He also said the Pistons need to make O'Neal pay for sagging off Ben Wallace on defense, saying one way he plans to counter is by pairing Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess together on the front line to draw O'Neal away from the basket and open up the inside.
What the Pistons need is for their starters to play well together instead of peaking individually for brief stretches. Tayshaun Prince scored 11 points in the first quarter Monday but just four the rest of the way; Richard Hamilton had an abysmal second half, shooting 0-for-6 with five turnovers; and Rasheed Wallace was barely a factor again with 12 points and five rebounds as foul trouble limited him to 28 minutes.
But more than anything, the Pistons need to find a way to keep Wade and O'Neal under control. Saunders feels it isn't too late.
"You can't say, 'You know what, we can't stop them.' We've got to find ways," he said. "As a staff and as players, you have to keep working at different things and try whatever you can. We did that with LeBron, and it took us until Game 7 to find the magic potion. We're in the same situation, the difference is we're trying to find it against two guys, not just one."
If the Pistons can't find that answer Wednesday, their season will be as over and their mojo gone.