Commentary

Pistons bounce back against Sixers, but recurring letdowns remain big issue

Originally Published: April 24, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The back-and-forth between Maurice Cheeks and the hecklers behind the Philly bench had been going on all evening, with Cheeks staying as engaged as any coach we've seen since M.L. Carr was paying more attention to the fans than to his own Celtics back in the mid-'90s.

[+] EnlargeMaurice Cheeks
D. Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesWhen not jousting wth hecklers, Sixers coach Mo Cheeks tried to prod his team ahead in Game 2.
By the time Richard Hamilton was called for a technical foul midway through the third quarter, the Sixers were down by 22 points, and Cheeks -- to his credit -- let out a bit of a belly laugh when one heckler told him to let Andre Iguodala shoot the tech.

By that point, Iguodala had gotten off to an 0-for-7 start on what would become a 1-for-9 evening from the field, and Cheeks couldn't help but chuckle at the relevance of what the heckler was saying as he motioned for Willie Green, not Iguodala, to step to the line for the free throw.

The shot was good, but the rest of the game wasn't for the upstarts from Philadelphia who shocked the NBA by coming back from 15 points down to win Game 1.

"I told my players afterward: This is what we're trying to get to. We knew they'd come tonight. We had to learn what it's like to take a hit and withstand a hit from a team that has played for a championship," Cheeks said after his 76ers were outclassed 105-88 Wednesday night by the Detroit Pistons.

Cheeks kept up a running dialogue with the hecklers through much of the game, asking one woman what exactly she meant when she yelled "40-42."

"What's that, our record?" Cheeks asked before holding out his index finger, then cupping his hand into a circle, signaling that the only record that counted was 1-0.

The fact that 1-0 would soon become 1-1 did not seem to bother Cheeks, a man who all night long wore the expression of a gambler playing with house money.

"Hey, Mo: Amir [Johnson] is shooting 3s against you," was the last good heckle that came out of the mouths of the folks in the front row behind the visiting bench, but Cheeks did not hear that one midway through the fourth quarter because he was down at the end of his bench telling Louis Amundson to take off his warm-ups, an act of surrender that could have come a whole quarter earlier on a night when the Sixers had no answer for the Pistons' aggressiveness, resilience and balance.

The Detroit we've come to know so well over the past six years -- the team that seems like it gives 100 percent about 50 percent of the time -- showed off its better side after a stunning loss in the opener of this best-of-seven series, turning up the defensive pressure, finding balance in its offense and generally playing with an entirely different level of focus as it evened the series.

Every Detroit starter hit at least 50 percent of his shots, and the Pistons had a 37-24 edge on the boards over the first three quarters before Amundson & Co. made that number a little more respectable in garbage time.

[+] EnlargeChauncey Billups
D. Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesIn Game 2, Chauncey Billups helped put a stop to the Sixers and Andre Iguodala.
The key adjustments made by Detroit's Flip Saunders were getting his players to attack the rim, to pressure the ball in the backcourt, to trap Andre Miller to get the ball out of his hands, to make the Sixers pay for their proclivity to always switch on a screen, as well as to jump out when defending screen-and-rolls to prevent the Sixers from rolling into the paint and scoring with as much ease as they did in Game 1.

"There's no question, we were disappointed, upset, mad at what happened, and our guys responded," said Saunders, whose team has had more than its share of mental highs and lows in 99 postseason games over the past five seasons.

The Pistons don't always bring it. But when they do -- as they did Wednesday night -- they have shown they're good enough to defeat anyone in the NBA. The frustrating part is not being able to summon that intensity until there's a breakdown beforehand.

"I don't like it. I don't think anyone likes it," Saunders said. "I don't know if it's that they thrive on that, being able to bounce back. Their personality is that when they do something wrong or mess up or let something slip away, they know what they've done and they want to make it right. But to be a championship team, what you want to do is to be able to play when you're the favorite. It's easy to play when you're the underdog or your backs are against the wall, because you've got unbelievable concentration. It's much more difficult to do it from the other end, and that's what we've done for a lot of the season. We let one slip in Game 1, and we can't afford to do that anymore -- whether it's this series or whatever series we play in."

So as we move on to Game 3 on Friday night in Philadelphia, it again becomes a question of which Pistons team will show up.

Detroit is clearly superior to Philly, but the Pistons also remain their own worst enemy. And although Saunders said he doesn't want to see any more letdowns, it has become clear over the years that another one is coming; it's simply a matter of when -- and how -- the Pistons will respond after it happens.

This time, they responded like the Pistons we've come to know -- decisively, assertively, forcefully. So it becomes a question of how many more times they're going to go to that resiliency well, because there's going to come a time -- maybe not this year, but sometime down the road -- when that spring is going to run dry.

And that's when the Pistons are going to look back on their careers, measure their level of collective fulfillment and wonder why they didn't play every playoff game with the same intensity they summoned Wednesday night.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.