With backs against wall, Pistons try to regain 'mojo'

Updated: May 30, 2006, 7:36 PM ET
Associated Press

DETROIT -- The Detroit Pistons haven't looked like themselves.

"Our mojo has kind of disappeared," coach Flip Saunders said.

Even if Detroit finds the intangible it's missing before hosting the Miami Heat on Wednesday in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, it might not matter because:

 Dwyane Wade
Wade

 Shaquille O'Neal
O'Neal

Dwyane Wade appears to be unstoppable driving to the basket.

Shaquille O'Neal, rejuvenated and motivated, is as dominant as he's been in years.

• Pat Riley's roster revamping has been working, and the famed coach has been making all the right moves.

"The way we've been playing, we'll be fine," O'Neal said.

History says the Heat will reach the NBA Finals for the first time. Teams leading conference or division finals 3-1, like Miami is against Detroit, have advanced 40 of 43 times and 16 straight.

"I don't play by the percentages," Riley said. "We need to get another win and we can't bank on that hypothetical numerology."

The Pistons, one of the most resilient teams in recent NBA history, face the same 3-1 deficit they overcame in 2003 with four of their current starters playing key roles. But this isn't the first round, and they're not playing the Orlando Magic.

The two-time defending Eastern Conference champions have regularly rallied to advance in the past, though not against a team as talented, cohesive and healthy as this version of the Heat.

"Our mojo has kind of disappeared."
Flip Saunders

"We put ourselves in this position so many times. Obviously it's catching up with us," Detroit forward Tayshaun Prince said. "But it's not over."

It will be soon, unless the Pistons figure out how to regain the form they had at both ends of the court during the regular season and the first seven games of the playoffs.

The Pistons won 64 regular-season games, more than any other team since the O'Neal-led Lakers during the 1999-2000 season.

Detroit improved offensively under Saunders, its third coach in four years, and seemed just as dominant on defense for nearly 90 games.

But since leading Cleveland 2-0 in the second round, the Pistons have barely resembled the team favored to win the NBA title for the second time in three years. Detroit's free-flowing offense has become stagnant, and its tough defense has been tissue soft.

The Cavs pushed Detroit to a Game 7. Now, Miami is a win away from eliminating a struggling team that has picked the worst time to forget what made it successful.

"Right now, we're just not functioning very good and we haven't since the third game against Cleveland," Saunders said.

By taking shots at their coach and complaining about officiating, the Pistons have also chipped away at the respect they earned as a rare, championship-caliber team that relied on teamwork and not one or two stars.

The confidence Detroit built by overcoming four 3-2 deficits the past four postseasons -- including last year's East finals against Miami -- is being perceived as arrogance by some because opponents are rarely given due credit.

Miami's superstars certainly deserve praise in this round.

Wade is scoring nearly 31 points a game against Detroit and making almost 70 percent of his shots while dishing out five assists a game.

"He's great because he listens and he does it like Magic Johnson used to do it, very unselfishly, but still puts up his numbers," O'Neal said.

O'Neal is proving he's far from washed up, averaging about 21 points -- on 62 percent shooting -- and 10 rebounds against the Pistons, who eliminated him the past two years.

"By far, Shaq is the best he's been in two, three years," Saunders said. "Last night we saw him steal that thing a little past halfcourt and went the full length. I haven't seen that in a while."

Saunders was encouraged by how a zone defense slowed down Wade and O'Neal in the third quarter of Game 4, but said the Pistons are more limited defensively than they were before he became their coach because of rule changes.

"When you're not allowed to touch people, either in the post much or in the perimeter, what it does is it gives more opportunities for your star-type players," Saunders said. "I don't think anyone envisioned San Antonio would get into a series and give up over 100 points as they did against Sacramento and against Dallas."

Even if the Pistons win Game 5, they still would have to win Friday at Miami and back home on Sunday to reach the Finals for the third straight year.

"We've got to think about Wednesday because if we don't and we don't put everything we have into Wednesday, there won't be a Friday," Detroit point guard Chauncey Billups said.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press