Alternate title: Um, is it time to start worrying yet?
Statistically, a win is a win is a win -- the final record does not reflect games a team should have won, nor does it make a special distinction regarding games it barely won. So perhaps we should just put Saturday's squeaker against the Bobcats behind us -- no matter what almost happened, in the end, it's just another W, right?
Well, that's technically correct, but I know I'm not the only one that felt a lot better about last weekend's win against the Bobcats than I did about last night's. Exactly a week ago today, the Pistons returned to the Palace after suffering a blowout loss to the Wizards in D.C., and in turn took out their frustrations on Bobcats, the league's red-headed step-child of a team. Detroit cruised to a 94-78 victory.
This time around, the Pistons traveled to Charlotte after suffering an embarrassing meltdown in New York, but instead of regaining their composure with another lopsided victory against the two-year-old expansion team, they were pushed to the limit in another game that wasn't decided until the closing seconds.
First the good news: Rip Hamilton led the way with 23 points; Chauncey Billups was in top form with 20 points, nine dimes and six boards, and Tayshaun Prince's recent stretch of fine play continued with 18 points on 7-9 shooting.
Now, the bad news: The entire team was sloppy with the ball, producing 20 turnovers. Ben Wallace scored 10 points but managed just four rebounds in 38 minutes, failing to record double-digit rebounds for the third straight game and for the fifth time in the last seven. Worse yet, the Bobcats' big men filled the basket with ease all night, with center Primo Brezec scoring a team-high 20 in just 24 minutes. Reserves Jake Voskuhl (18 points, 24 minutes) and Melvin Ely (11 points, 21 minutes) also made their presence known. Let's just say this game won't be included on the highlight reel the team sends around when it comes time to vote for Defensive Player of the Year.Speaking of the Defensive Player of the Year, the folks over at Bobcats Planet think that Gerald Wallace might deserve the award. Personally, I don't think any player on a team that bad could win the award, especially not after missing 20-plus games with injury. But it did catch my eye to read that Wallace could end up finishing the year as the first guy in 15 years to average better than two steals and two blocks in a season. He's leading the league with 2.49 steals per game and is hauling down 7.3 boards per game -- not bad at all for a 6-7 swingman.
Also, Tony Delk didn't play at all in the second half because of a sore right hamstring. While I hope it isn't serious, I wasn't too concerned about it on Saturday since it simply prompted Flip Saunders to loosen up the eight-man rotation and get Carlos Delfino eight minutes of action. Maybe I'm just fishing these days, but it certainly seemed like Delfino made a bigger impact that all those zeros after his name in the box score suggests -- I know for a fact he tallied at least one steal (was it credited to Chauncey Billups?), because that's what led to the fast break in which he was fouled and awarded two free throws (both of which he unfortunately missed). But I digress...
The Pistons led by 12 at one point in the fourth quarter but gave up runs of 8-0 and 5-0 to let the Bobcats crawl back within shooting distance. In the end, though, Prince's three-point play (runner and a foul shot) with 10 seconds left officially put the game out of reach.
On a small scale, Saturday's game isn't that big of a deal, especially considering the Pistons won. But looking at everything that happened so far this month, and especially in the last week, it's a little disturbing. Let's recap:
- March 1: 87-98 road loss to the Nuggets
- March 3: 98-96 road win against the Sonics
- March 4: 94-105 road loss to the Lakers
- March 8: 106-101 home win against the Bulls
- March 11: 92-110 road loss to the Wizards
- March 12: 94-78 home win against the Bobcats
- March 15: 105-98 road win against the Raptors
- March 17: 103-105 road loss to the Knicks
- March 18: 108-103 road win against the Bobcats
Do you remember what those 11-game winning streaks feel like? Because I don't. This was supposed to be one of the easier stretches of the schedule, but the Pistons have gone just 5-4 with most of the games being decided in the final minute. It'd be one thing if they were struggling against the elite teams, but instead they've played down to the level of competition against some of the worst the league has to offer.
With two more games against Miami the rest of the way, plus one against Phoenix and one against Dallas (and for that matter, one more against both New York and Washington), the Pistons need to figure things out, and soon. Their once insurmontable lead over the Spurs and Mavericks has shrivled to just half a game, and all three teams are currently tied with 52 wins.
Now, it's very possible that it really has been the level of competition that's caused Detroit's recent downfall -- the players have admitted as much that they feel they can beat anyone in the league and sometimes have trouble getting up for these bottom-feeders. Said Billups after Saturday's game: "No disrespect to anybody, but it's always fun to play the other elite teams in the league. It makes a difference."
If that's the case, we should find out on Wednesday if the Pistons can flip the switch when the Heat, winners of 14 of their last 15, come to town.
Whatever the situation is, the Pistons have to realize that whatever magic charm they had working for them early in the season has long since disappeared. While they've long had the top seed in the East sewn up, it won't be possible to simply coast the rest of the year and expect homecourt advantage in the Finals.
And while Flip may be right in that the 2-3-2 format used in the Finals is a bit of an equalizer for both teams, there's no getting around the fact that losing the homecourt now would be a huge let-down for a team that was widely recognized as the best in the league for almost the entire season. I don't know if that would demoralize the team heading into the postseason or simply put the familiar chip back on their shoulders, but it's something I'd rather not find out.