Saunders might feel heat after playoff exit

Updated: June 3, 2006, 12:30 AM ET
Associated Press

MIAMI -- Detroit Pistons coach Flip Saunders was bothered by starting the season in Larry Brown's shadow.

Comparisons to the Hall of Famer won't get any easier this summer for Saunders.

Following Friday's loss in Miami, Flip Saunders is 7-25 on the road in the playoffs.
Fair or not, Detroit's first-year coach will be blamed by some because the Pistons fell short of the NBA Finals -- where Brown led them each of the previous two seasons.

"People pretty much have already done that, so it doesn't matter to me," Saunders told The Associated Press just before he boarded a bus to leave the arena.

The Miami Heat beat Detroit 95-78 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday night, eliminating the team that won a league-high 64 games, a franchise record, and began the postseason as the favorites to win a title for the second time in three years.

Chauncey Billups -- who finished fifth in MVP voting -- helped the Pistons have a spectacular regular season. But like many of his teammates, the point guard didn't resemble the player he was from November to April.

That's why Billups said people shouldn't criticize only Saunders.

"I don't think it's fair to do that," Billups said. "It falls on everybody's shoulders.

"When you look at the series a couple weeks from now, you can say there were probably were some things that Flip could've done better. There's also a lot of things that I know I could've personally done better. And, I think you could say that for every single player on the team."

Saunders didn't miss a shot or defensive assignment for the Pistons after signing a four-year contract worth up to $26 million last July. But the knock against him during his nine-plus seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves was how he fared in the postseason after solid regular seasons.

He led Minnesota to eight straight playoff appearances -- seven ended in the first round -- and was fired after 51 games during the 2004-05 season.

Saunders failures on the road when games matter most is almost unmatched.

With Friday's setback in Miami, Saunders fell to 7-25 on the road in the playoffs. Only Mike Fratello (5-26) has been worse away from home among NBA coaches with at least 20 postseason games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The Pistons were 0-3 on the Heat's court in the conference finals, 1-2 at Cleveland in the second round and 1-1 against Milwaukee on the road in the first round.

"Why we played the way we did on the road in the playoffs is beyond me," said Tayshaun Prince, Detroit's most consistent player in the postseason.

Saunders is regarded as an offense-minded coach, a stark contrast to Brown, whose emphasis on defense helped the Pistons go from a good team to a championship-caliber squad. Rick Carlisle, who preceded Brown, established Detroit's identity as a team that was tough to score against.

Carlisle was fired in 2003 after leading Detroit to the conference finals in his second season.

Less than a day after Detroit finalized terms of Brown's $7 million severance package -- with three years and about $18 million left on his contract -- Saunders was hired.

It didn't take long for Saunders to get annoyed by questions about following a famed coach.

"Look, I've been in this league for 10 years and I don't think I take a back seat to anybody in coaching," Saunders said in an interview with the AP in October. "Larry Brown is a good coach, who has his way of doing things. I'm a good coach, who has another way of doing things."

Even before the Pistons were sent home, Saunders was feeling the heat from a few players that lamented his lack of commitment to defense, among other things. Some fans and analysts have also complained about his coaching, searching for reasons why the Pistons didn't look like the same team that was dominant during the regular season and early in the playoffs.

"I've been like a standing pinata," Saunders said the day before Detroit's seasons ended. "They've gotten a little bit of candy out of me, but I've got a lot left."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press