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05-15-2005, 11:20 AM

Champs must leave nothing to chance as they try to avoid impending disaster

By Bob Wojnowski / The Detroit News

INDIANAPOLIS--The effort is sporadic. The turnovers are hideous. The whining is lame. Even the latest Rasheed Wallace guarantee sounded forced, uttered out of habit, as if he were searching (reaching?) for something that used to work.

The Pistons suddenly, inexplicably, are out of character and immersed in trouble against Indiana. Yes. Do not kid yourselves. The champs have a problem as they enter Game 4 today trailing the Pacers 2-1. It's a fixable problem, but after they've slopped around for nearly seven straight quarters, it's a problem they can't ignore.

They're not making shots against Indiana's hustling defense. They're rushing, looking disoriented. They're not playing with force, on offense or defense. That's puzzling, as well as inexcusable.

After practice Saturday, the Pistons still sounded upbeat and largely unconcerned. Fine. That's a champion's prerogative. If they win today, as they should, a looming crisis would fade.

But they should be whiffing desperation and it should start with Rasheed Wallace, half of the famous Wallace Wall. Remember the Wall, the intimidating barrier that sends opponents scampering out of the lane? The Pacers haven't been intimidated, and the Wall is showing cracks.

When Larry Brown finally stopped griping about the officiating, thank goodness, he said the Pistons had to use their big men more, and the big men had to demand the ball more. Ben Wallace had 21 points in Game 1 and has a total of 10 since.

But more of this is on Rasheed Wallace, who needs to play angrier and smarter, and tougher inside. I suspect he knows it, too. He knew it last year when he guaranteed a Game 2 victory over Indiana, then came out impassioned. The Pistons won 72-67, and although Rasheed shot 4-for-19, he swatted five shots, part of a franchise-record 19 blocks.

In this series he has floated too often to three-point range, where he's 2-for-11. He heaved up three airballs in the 79-74 loss Friday night, before exiting the dressing room with his latest declaration: "We're definitely going back to Detroit with this thing 2-2."

He declined to expand on his statement Saturday, but the other pillar did.

"Whether it's playing with a chip on our shoulders or whatever, we need less talk and more play," Ben Wallace said. "We've got to make a conscious effort to get the ball inside. We're making ourselves too small in the paint. We've got to get big in the paint."

Indiana, hardly a dominant inside team, has outscored the Pistons 66-40 in the lane the last two games. The startling thing is, the Pistons are not getting beat by the stars. They're getting beat by Jeff Foster, who gobbles rebounds, and Jamaal Tinsley, who keeps driving straight to the basket, barely breathed upon.

"We're not controlling the tempo," Ben Wallace said.

The Pistons aren't scaring the Pacers and aren't fooling anybody right now. There's no doubt they relaxed after their blistering start in this series. But since Rasheed Wallace demanded the most attention with his words, we're demanding the biggest response from him. Less talk, more play?

Sure. Also, less clanging, more banging.

05-15-2005, 11:21 AM

Pistons calm before storm

Players say they aren't frustrated, and Rasheed Wallace predicts Game 4 win.

By Chris McCosky / The Detroit News

Richard Hamilton says the Pistons must duplicate the effort they showed in the second half Friday night.

INDIANAPOLIS -- You could argue that Game 4 today against the Pacers is the closest thing to a crisis point the Pistons have had since they faced elimination in Game 6 at New Jersey last year.

You could argue it until you were blue in the face, but, as far as the Pistons are concerned, you would be wrong.

"We don't feel like it's a crisis," Richard Hamilton said. "It's a seven-game series. ... We know we still have a lot going our way."

The Pistons, after a galling 79-74 loss Friday night, trail the Pacers, 2-1. Another loss and they would face the prospect of coming home on the brink of an early and unexpected elimination.

"We're not frustrated at all," said Hamilton, who has made 12 of 33 shots with 12 turnovers in the last two games. "We know what we've got to do. We've been in this situation and we know what it takes to play the way we want to play."

And that is?

"We just have to come out and play like we played in the second half (Friday) for the full 48 minutes," he said. "We haven't played a full 48 minutes the last two games. We have to find a way to do that."

The Pacers seem poised and eager to push the Pistons to the edge.

"We're not a bum team that's playing off fumes," Jermaine O'Neal said. "We're a team that's very well coached, that has talent and has a lot of experience.

"Winning a Game 4 is going to be big for us, sending those guys back to Detroit down 3-1. That's a very big obstacle to get over."

Rasheed Wallace said he doesn't think the Pistons will have to worry about that.

"We are definitely going back to Detroit with this thing tied 2-2," Wallace said after the game. "No question about it."

Guarantees aside, coach Larry Brown maintained a high level of optimism Saturday.

"We know we have to play our best game by far to be in a position to win," he said. "The way I look at it, we haven't played our whole game the last two games and we had chances to win. Everybody knows what we have to do to be better."

The Pistons defended well enough to win Friday. The Pacers shot 36 percent and scored 12 of their 21 fourth-quarter points from the free-throw line.

But the Pistons sputtered badly, and uncharacteristically, on offense. After three quarters Friday, they were shooting 31 percent. They finished at 36.9.

"They've done a good job of knowing our plays, understanding what our play calls are and knowing where we like to go," said Tayshaun Prince, who had nine points and shot 2-for-8 Friday. "They're getting to our spots before we even run the play, so they are pushing us off the block and out of our spots."

The Pistons have had 33 turnovers the last two games. Instead of passing inside-outside and side-to-side, and making the Pacers' defense move, they have suddenly become a dribble-drive team, trying to attack constantly off the dribble.

That has been the equivalent of running their heads into a wall, as the Pacers continue to sag and collapse their defense.

The Pistons have scored 20 points in the lane the last two games and were outscored by 26 -- this against a team that had been outscored in the lane, 318-194, in its eight previous playoff games.

"If we move the ball, our percentages will go up," Brown said. "Every time we curled off a screen, it seemed like we got a good shot. Early in the game I thought we got impatient."

Chauncey Billups and Hamilton agreed that impatience was the main problem, and that started with them. In the two losses, they have combined for 12 assists and 17 turnovers.

"I think we want to win so badly, we want to play so well, that I think guys tried too hard and did too much on their own," Billups said. "We forgot about playing Detroit Pistons basketball until the end."

Billups said the Pistons will change some of their offensive sets, try to get the ball inside to Rasheed and Ben Wallace more consistently, and give the Pacers some new looks.

"Bottom line," Hamilton said, "is we just have to slow down and take our time. If we move the ball better and make easier plays, we'll be OK."

05-15-2005, 11:23 AM

Bird builds another legacy

Just like Dumars, former Celtics great plays game well as executive and player.

By John Niyo / The Detroit News

Robin Buckson / The Detroit News

Celtics Hall of Famer Larry Bird was a successful coach with the Pacers before moving into the front office.

When he was a starting guard with the Pistons, Joe Dumars had to keep an eye on Larry Bird and the Celtics.

AUBURN HILLS -- He waits until just the right moment, when the security guard is ready and the crowd at The Palace of Auburn Hills is momentarily distracted. That's when Larry Bird makes his move, emerging from the players' tunnel and quickly making his way to his seat 12 rows up in Section 101, shortly before tip-off in Game 1 of the Pacers-Pistons Eastern Conference semifinal series.

An hour later, Bird, president of basketball operations for the Pacers, is a portrait of discomfort with his team trailing the defending NBA champions by 15 points. Bird's 6-foot-9 frame is better suited to the visitors' bench than The Palace seats, and so is his mind, it seems.

"You don't have the ball in your hands, so just sitting there watching these games, you'll see the plays develop and you'll see a guy open and you flinch," said Bird, 48, a Hall of Fame player who won three NBA championships with the Boston Celtics. "You're saying, 'Get him the ball!' and then you wonder, 'How can he not see him?' It's painful, sometimes, it really is."

Pistons president Joe Dumars, who sat glumly behind his team's bench Friday night at Conseco Fieldhouse, certainly can relate. He watched the Pistons miss shot after shot en route to a 79-74 loss and a surprising 2-1 series deficit.

"If you're a person that doesn't have patience," said Dumars, who retired as a player in 1999, "this thing can eat you up."

And yet this thing keeps them coming back for more. Bird and Dumars, two of the best from the NBA's golden era, now are two of the most successful in a new generation of NBA front-office executives.

"Guys like Joe and Larry, they know the game," said Donnie Walsh, the Pacers' longtime president and general manager, who stepped aside to make room for Bird in July 2003. "Those two, they have a clear idea of what it takes to win. And they go after it like they did when they were playing."

More than half of the NBA's 30 teams have empowered former players to head up their basketball operations.

But it's the newest high-profile members of that club who are sparking interest and rekindling old rivalries around the NBA.

Dumars, Bird, Kevin McHale with the Timberwolves, Isiah Thomas with the Knicks, Danny Ainge with the Celtics, Chris Mullin with the Warriors and Kiki Vandeweghe with the Nuggets -- all of them were star players in the 1980s and '90s. Now they're back, looking for more "action," as Bird calls it, like gamblers who can't seem to shake an addiction.

"It's just in your blood," said Bird, who also coached the Pacers to the NBA Finals in 2000, then took three years off before returning as Walsh's hand-picked successor.

"I mean, basketball has been my whole life.

"Players, when they're playing, say, 'Boy, when I'm done I'm just going to sit back and do this or that.' But it's really hard to satisfy that competitive spirit. This is the only way you can do it."

Said Dumars: "You're competing. You're just competing on a different level than you were before."

Instead of trading jump shots, they're trading players, and trash-talking on the court has given way to cell-phone haggling over salary-cap issues.

"Just the other day I was on the phone with Danny Ainge, and we were talking about things," said Bird, whose Pacers eliminated Ainge's Celtics -- the two were teammates in Boston for nearly a decade -- in the first round of the playoffs last week. "It is funny. I mean, I've known Danny forever. But he's got his team and I've got mine now. And if he's trying to pry one of my good players away from me, well, I take that kind of personally."

It's a personal challenge, this new endeavor. And for every success story -- Dumars was the architect of last season's NBA champions in Detroit -- there's a former player in danger of tarnishing his legacy. Thomas, for one, has found little success as a basketball executive, first in Toronto and later as CEO of the failed Continental Basketball Association. Now he's facing a rebuilding job with the Knicks.

Bird credits his mentors, including legendary Celtics president Red Auerbach, for his early front-office success. Toward the end of his career, he began laying the groundwork as an unofficial apprentice to Dave Gavitt, then the Celtics' executive vice president. Now he works closely with Walsh, 64, a respected manager whose franchise -- once a league laughingstock -- has made the playoffs in 15 of the last 16 seasons.

"It's great to have a guy there that you can learn from who has been successful," said Bird, who also has taken over scouting and draft preparation from Walsh. "He's been doing it for 18 years, and he's seen it all. I learn something new every day."

Likewise, Dumars eased into the big leather chair, spending a year as the Pistons' vice president of player personnel under Rick Sund before taking control of basketball operations for owner Bill Davidson in June 2000.

A month later, Dumars lost his franchise player, Grant Hill, to Orlando via free agency. But he worked quickly to snare Ben Wallace, who would become the franchise's new cornerstone, in a sign-and-trade for Hill. Then Dumars set about ridding the Pistons of burdensome contracts. He packaged Christian Laettner, Terry Mills and Loy Vaught in a deal with Dallas. He made a pre-emptive swap of Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton with another of his contemporaries, Michael Jordan, then the Washington Wizards' president.

Dumars later added a savvy free-agent pickup in Chauncey Billups and a draft-day steal in Tayshaun Prince, then followed one successful coaching hire (Rick Carlisle) with another (Larry Brown). The result was a balanced roster similar to what Dumars had been a part of as a player. It's now the blueprint for the rest of the NBA.

"One of the common denominators of that era when we played was you had great teams," Dumars, 41, said. "And I think you're starting to see a lot more people go the 'team' route now."

Indiana's roster was decimated by injuries this season, and suspensions stemming from the Nov. 19 brawl at The Palace -- All-Star forward Ron Artest was lost for the season. But Bird chose to stand pat, remembering the advice of Auerbach, who used to tell him, "A year isn't a very long time."

"Sure, it was frustrating," said Bird, who took the Indiana job after a failed ownership bid in Charlotte a few years ago. "It was very difficult there for a couple of months -- just trying to get bodies in here to make a roster -- and everybody thought we should go out and make trades, told us we should trade Artest.

"But we knew we just had to be patient, and as the season went on, you knew these guys were going to play hard every night. That's all you can ask."

Bird, who won three consecutive league MVP awards in the mid-1980s, said that's all he has ever demanded.

"I'll take a little less talent to get a good guy that plays hard," said Bird, who also was NBA coach of the year in 1998. "I've always felt that way, even as a player. As a teammate, as long as you practiced hard and played hard, I could put up with a few mistakes on the floor."

His coach, Carlisle, fits that description. The two were teammates with the Celtics, and when Carlisle was fired abruptly in Detroit two summers ago, a newly hired Bird didn't take long to tap him to replace Thomas as the Pacers' coach.

"To me, the one thing Larry Bird always had was an ability to give people around him confidence," said Carlisle, the NBA coach of the year in Detroit in 2002 and this year's runner-up for the award. "As a player, Larry helped a lot of marginal guys play better basketball, myself included. As a coach, he helped his team believe that they could play at a certain level others didn't."

Now, as a team president, he's determined to do the same for the Pacers without stealing the spotlight, though that's easier said than done. Larry Bird is still "Larry Legend," and not just in his home state of Indiana.

"Being around Larry Bird is like being around Babe Ruth in another era, really," Carlisle said. "It's almost impossible for him to go out anywhere without getting a crowd of people around him."

Bird obliged autograph seekers at The Palace last week, but it's clear he's not in it for the adulation. And he might not always like the view from Section 101, but he has learned to live with it.

"In my mind, this has always been a players' league," he said. "I played, I had fun, I had some success. But once I got out and then was coaching, I told my players, 'I'm not here for the ego. I'm here to win. It's your game. It's up to you guys. And it's the same now. I don't go down there and hang around practice. I may be there for a few minutes, but then I leave.

"It's their game and it's their league and it's up to them to carry it on."

You can reach John Niyo at john.niyo@detnews.com.

05-15-2005, 11:24 AM

Brown's complaints lead to anger from Carlisle, who says look at the numbers.

By Chris McCosky / The Detroit News

Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News

Point guard Jamaal Tinsley uses a bit of elbow grease to drive around Chauncey Billups during Game 3.

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AUBURN HILLS -- Pistons coach Larry Brown still stands by the premise of his tirade Friday after Game 3.

"There were too many points scored without an attempted field goal," he said after a short practice Saturday. "There were too many points scored when they were not in scoring position and we just put them on the line."

Reggie Miller made four free throws in the final 81 seconds to help the Pacers regain the lead, and they resulted from fouls away from the basket.

Brown also complained that Miller pushed off Lindsey Hunter before he made the clinching basket with 10.7 seconds left.

Replays seemed to show that Hunter flopped a bit on the play, but angles explored by the Pistons' video staff showed that Miller clearly elbowed Hunter.

"I went back and listened to what I said," Brown said. "I wasn't really mad at Reggie's play. That didn't bother me at all. I talked about how he made a great shot. I didn't want to take anything away from that.

"The way he got the shot, yeah, that troubled me. But what I was really trying to say was that they scored without any real significance on the game. They got to the line without driving to the basket and taking a shot. That troubled me. The players did not determine the game."

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle reacted angrily to Brown's comments.

"They shot more free throws than we did. We committed more fouls than them," Carlisle said. "And we have to hear about how the officials blew the game? Come on, seriously."

Jermaine O'Neal of the Pacers and Richard Hamilton of the Pistons fouled out of Game 3. Hamilton's sixth foul came with 1:21 left on a play on which he chased and grabbed Miller as he ran along the baseline.

"When me and Reggie play, there's a lot of holding and grabbing," Hamilton said. "You can call a foul every time down the court. They didn't call that foul the whole game, and I don't understand how you make that call with one minute left and both teams in the penalty?"

Miller agreed.

"There was some holding," he said. "I was called for it and Rip was called for it. The calls were correct. I don't think that they need to be called in playoff basketball, but if you call it on me, you have to call it on him."

Prediction time again

The Pistons, as they did last year, seemed to embrace Rasheed Wallace's claim that they will win Game 4.

"We all feel like we are going to win," Hamilton said. "We all said it in the locker room (Friday). The only difference is, Rasheed said it to the media."

The Pacers treated it like an old bit.

"That's what he does," O'Neal said, laughing.

Said Stephen Jackson: "He probably did that to motivate his team. We don't need any predictions to motivate us. They can say what they want to say. We don't care what they say."

Bench pressed

Brown chafed at the notion that his starters ran out of energy and he should have used his reserves more in Game 3. Antonio McDyess, in foul trouble, played 15 minutes and Hunter 18.

"The bench had nothing to do with it," he said. "We came from 17 points down. I don't think you can come from 17 points down and say you don't have energy. I thought we had unbelievable energy."

You can reach Chris McCosky at (313) 222-1489

05-15-2005, 11:44 AM
Some of these comments by Pistons players actually made me laugh out loud.

05-15-2005, 12:10 PM
Some of these comments by Pistons players actually made me laugh out loud.

Yeah, the "We don't think there's a problem" and "It's a 7-game series" quotes seem a bit delusional. They keep it up and it'll be a 5-game series.

05-15-2005, 12:36 PM
"They've done a good job of knowing our plays, understanding what our play calls are and knowing where we like to go," said Tayshaun Prince, who had nine points and shot 2-for-8 Friday. "They're getting to our spots before we even run the play, so they are pushing us off the block and out of our spots."

This is the most insightful thing I read in all those articles and every article written about the series so far. It really says it all. And also demonstrates how good of a coach Rick is.

05-15-2005, 01:20 PM
"Just the other day I was on the phone with Danny Ainge, and we were talking about things," said Bird, whose Pacers eliminated Ainge's Celtics -- the two were teammates in Boston for nearly a decade -- in the first round of the playoffs last week. "It is funny. I mean, I've known Danny forever. But he's got his team and I've got mine now. And if he's trying to pry one of my good players away from me, well, I take that kind of personally."

What do you want to be that conversation was about Ron?

05-15-2005, 01:36 PM
What do you want to be that conversation was about Ron?

Of all the players in the NBA, PP is one of my favorites. I think Ron might be a better player, but hell if he is suspended all the time who cares. JB and Ron for PP... pull the trigger Larry.

05-15-2005, 01:39 PM
What do you want to be that conversation was about Ron?

If Larry could convice Ainge to give him Jefferson for Ron Artest, I think I would bow down and worship the man. I really like this kid, I think he will be something special down the road.

I'm done now, I am exiting fantasy world....