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So much for that wake-up call: Hawks (?!) top Pistons

Being the consummate homer, I didn't want to admit this. But here goes. The Pistons are not the clear-cut best team in the NBA anymore. Sure, they were atop their game--and the league--for the first half of the season, but now, reality is setting in and/or the Mavs and Spurs are stepping up. Either way, the Pistons have their first losing streak of the season (to an outmanned Pacers team and to the flippin' Atlanta Hawks last night) and some company up top in the league standings.

    Not all is lost

We didn't really expect the Pistons to win 70 games this year, did we? The national attention was nice, and the MVP and All-Star love was deserved. But at the beginning of the season, even Piston fans were projecting the boys in blue to be in a dogfight to win their own conference and along the way compete for home court advantage in the finals. So we're still ahead of the curve, albeit by an ever decreasing amount.

    Not all is won

Put away the MVP trophies (at least, for now). Delete the link to the chase for 70 from your favorites menu. The Pistons are now in a dogfight. Maybe not in the Eastern Conference--Miami and Jersey are still scrapping for second. But in the Western Conference, both Dallas (1.5 games back of the Pistons) and San Antonio (2 games back) are charging hard right now. If the Pistons fall anywhere short of home court throughout, they will have fallen short of the only regular-season goal of any significance, and they'll be faced with the similar prospect of a road game 7 in the finals (should they go that far).

    Race for homecourt starts tonight

As hard as it is for me to take my own advice, put all your emotions from the last five games in the same place you put those from the first 42 before them--as the prologue to this story. The story is no longer about chasing the '95-96 Bulls; it is about fending off the '05-06 Mavs and Spurs for the top record. Get used to hearing this: the Pistons are no longer the best team in the NBA. That distinction could go to the Mavs (winners of 12 in a row and 15 of 16). It might even go to the Spurs--twice victims of Detroit's early-season dominance--who have won 10 of 11 since their embarrassing home loss to the Pistons last month and have lost fewer games than Detroit in '06.

Bottom line: the Pistons play in a vacuum no more. There are 35 games left in the season, and they'll be eyeing almost every box score coming out of Texas. ('Almost,' because who really cares about the Rockets?) Sounds exciting, right? It sounds like what we had planned from the beginning. But we all need to extract ourselves from the early-season euphoria and hope that the Boys in Blue can get back to just being a great team, which, the players seem to agree, they are not right now.

Hawks 99, Pistons 98 box score [ESPN]
Pistons lose 2nd straight [Detroit News]