So where do we begin in dissecting this one? Matt and I are going to have to break this into three separate thoughts in order to capture all the emotions following last night's disaster.
This is no post-mortem
First off, do not expect this to be a post-mortem of the Pistons series. While things look bleak, I refuse to think that all is lost. The Pistons fought during the entire regular season to head to the playoffs with home-court advantage, and now -- just like the in the Conference semis -- they'll have to take full advantage in order to advance.
3-0 in the next three games; this isn't as tall an order as the first four games of the series might suggest. I'm not saying that it will be easy or even likely, but two of the next three games are at the Palace, and all three games will be separated by only one off-day each. You hope that the Palace faithful can summon their voices to embolden the Pistons, as they did in the finals last year when the Pistons returned to the Palace down 0-2 to the Spurs. You hope that the consistent series grind will have some cumulative affects on Kazaam and 'Zo, leading to fatigue and/or foul trouble, and the freeing of Ben and Sheed for the help defense that seems to have disappeared from the repetoire. You hope that Dwayne Wade's reckless style of play take its toll as the series progresses.
Most of all, you hope that the Pistons can summon some heart and shift their angst towards the Heat for once, rather than the refs, their coaches, the league, etc.
Game 4: WTF?
What's the most important quarter in a basketball game? Up until this series, I would have said the fourth. But through four games, the team that wins the first quarter has gone on to win the game.
On Monday, the Heat jumped out to a six-point lead (23-17) through one. The Pistons stayed even in the second (21-21) and managed to win the third (22-18), but by the time the stormed ahead in the fourth to grab a four-point lead, all it took was just a couple of mistakes for the momentum to swing in the other direction. Detroit was never able to build a cushion to lean back on, and when Dwyane Wade decided he was going to take ownership of the fourth quarter, the Pistons had no margin for error to prevent it.
Sure, we can make things more interesting with pet theories about locker room chemistry and the team's lack of respect for Flip Saunders, but you don't need to know any back stories to see what's happening -- every time the Pistons have regained the lead or threatened to take it the past two games, they proceded to run out of gas. It's easy to forget about that early deficit once the score is close, but that four-point lead would have been in the double-digits had Detroit matched or topped Miami in the first.
Individually, we saw the brief return of Tayshaun Prince, who bounced back from a three-point effort in Game 3 to score 11 points in the first 12 minutes. He single-handedly prevented this game from becoming a blowout early -- but unfortunately managed just four more points the rest of the way.
It's obvious that Rasheed Wallace is still hampered by his sprained ankle, but what's more concerning is the losing battle he still insists on fighting with the referees. Early foul trouble limited him throughout the entire game, and in 29 minutes he scored 12 points with five rebounds. The refs could certainly make for a reliable scapegoat... if only Sheed wasn't actually committing all those fouls he's being whistled for. You almost wish he'd just get a tech and forget about it, but instead of reaching his boiling point quickly, he's been stuck at a low simmer for much of the series, which appears to be distracting him.
Antonio McDyess grabbed seven boards in 22 minutes but failed to make up for Rasheed's offense with just two points on 1-3 shooting. Lindsey Hunter and Mo Evans combined for 18 points, which was helpful but not enough in a game where neither Chauncey Billups nor Rip Hamilton could top 14.
Of course, the big story in Game 4 (and the series, really) was Dwyane Wade. He led the Heat with 27 points on just 11 field goal attempts. He's been the very definition of efficiency in this series, shooting 69.5% from the field 83% from the line the past four games. He's not just doing it with trademark acrobatic drives (though that is one of the ways he's doing it), he's also hitting off-balance jumpers, often with the shot-clock about to expire. Detroit threw everything at him they were allowed to throw, and eventually they threw some stuff they werne't allowed, namely hard fouls by Dale Davis and Rip Hamilton that resulted on Wade taking awkward falls onto his back. But even that couldn't stop Wade, as he continued to hit free throw after free throw, drive after drive, jumper after jumper. Detroit needs to do whatever it was they did in Game 2, when Wade shot "only" 55% from the field with nine turnovers, if they want to win another game in this series. In each of the other three games, Wade has shot at least 72% from the field.
So what now?
Finally, how the hell are the Boys in Blue going to pull themselves from this crater they've dug themselves? There's no point in calling any game a "must-win" for the Pistons anymore -- they all are. But I don't think it is a stretch at all to say that Miami "must win" one of the next two. Further, I'd be willing to bet that Miami has a better chance of taking Game 5 in Auburn Hills than they do in Game 6 in Miami. Why? 1) because the Pistons are fragile right now and 3-1 is a lot more intimidating than 3-2; and 2) a Piston win in Game 5 sets up an incredibly pressure-packed game 6 for the Heat would would be staring down a Game 7 at the Palace (a game in which the Pistons should be favored).
For starters, it would also help immensely if the Pistons could limit one of either Kazaam or Dwayne Wade. The philosophy of allowing one superstar to go off while limiting his subordinates has worked in the past against Michael Redd, Lebron James, as well as with Shaq in '04 and '05, but when two superstars are going off -- especially with the Pistons scoring in the 70s -- winning is near impossible.
Next, the Pistons need a quick boost for their fragile confidence. The cracks in the psyche showed during the Cavs series, but the Pistons always knew they could come back to beat Cleveland. Now, against a much tougher Miami squad, the trademark teamwork and collective swagger has devolved into a cacophany of bitching and moaning and misplaced anger. While a win at the Palace on Wednesday doesn't seal Miami's fate by any means, the Boys in Blue might just regain some of that cockiness that had -- up until this point -- enabled them to play without the hesitation and second-guessing we saw on the court in the past two games.
It is 'win or go home' -- again. The Pistons have been here several times before, and have mostly managed to avoid elimination. Let's hope they've got it in them to do it again (and again, and again), or else it's the end of the Pistons' coulda-been-a-dynasty. And Matt and I will need to find something else to obsess over for the next few months.