|C. BILLUPS He's a believer|
Surprised that the Pistons dropped Game 1 to the 76ers? At home? Even more surprised they were blown out in Game 3? On the road?
Let's just say losing focus has been as much a part of the Pistons' M.O. over the last six years as winning divisional titles (which they've done six times). To put it another way, these guys always seem to make it hard on themselves. They're proving to be the basketball example of Newton's third law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
After the Game 1 loss, Detroit All-Star Chauncey Billups went Manny ("it's not the end of the world") Ramírez when he uttered the unthinkable: Game 2 was not, in his mind, a must-win.
Mathematically, of course, he was correct. But there is a very short list of NBA teams that have climbed out of a 2-0 hole after losing the first two at home. And there's a very short list of teams that recover from 3-1 deficits, which is what the Pistons will face if they don't win tonight after getting humiliated in Game 3.
Their performance in Game 3 was mystifying. ESPN analyst Jon Barry ran out of ways to say, "What the heck is going on?" There were 23 turnovers from a team that led the league in fewest turnovers per game. There was a stretch in which they missed 17 straight shots and went more than 12 minutes without a field goal. They looked flat, uninspired, and bored.
Before Game 3, Billups had said, "We've been in the foxhole together for a long time, seen a lot of different situations, and that's where I put my confidence. I just believe in my team, in these guys. If people want to perceive it that way, that's fine. But the guys in this locker room, the guys that are fighting every single night in that foxhole, know exactly what it is."
That was before he went 2 for 11 in Game 3. That was before Antonio McDyess broke his nose in Game 3. That was before someone who looked a lot like Rasheed Wallace scored 2 points and had 5 rebounds in 34 minutes in Game 3.
Wallace's play is emblematic of the team as a whole.
In 2004, the year the Pistons won the NBA championship, they had a 2-0 lead on the Nets in the Eastern Conference finals and then dropped the next three games, including a memorable Game 5 defeat at home, 127-120, in triple overtime, which still qualifies as Brian Scalabrine's signature NBA moment (17 points, 4 3-pointers.) That necessitated going into New Jersey and winning Game 6, which they did (91-85), then they returned home to rout the Nets in Game 7. That one-game wake-up call spurred them on in the Finals, where they took out the favored Lakers in five.
In 2005, they played with fire in the second round (down, 2-1, to a vastly inferior Indiana team before winning it in six). In 2006, they reprised their 2004 performance against New Jersey, dropping three straight to the Cavs after taking a 2-0 lead. That meant winning a close Game 6 in Cleveland (84-82) and another Game 7 blowout (79-61) at home.
In 2007, they twice lost their moorings, the second time proving fatal. In the second round, they had a 3-0 lead over the Bulls, lost the next two, which meant having to win in Chicago or face a Game 7. They won in Chicago. They then took a 2-0 lead over the Cavs, again, lost three straight, again (the LeBron James performance for the ages in a double-overtime Cavs win in Game 5) but fell apart in Game 6 in Cleveland (the Daniel Gibson Show) and lost by 16, managing just 72 points.
The question remains: How come they ebb and flow so much in the part of the season where you'd think, by now, they'd be in Killer Mode? In Game 1 against Philadelphia, they missed 14 layups and blew a 15-point second-half lead, the first time that had happened at home since April 10, 2002. They were downright horrible in Game 3.
Which team shows up tonight? The No. 2 seeds have been almost as invincible as the No. 1 seeds since the 16-team playoff format was introduced in 1984, winning 44 of 48 series. The No. 1 seeds are 45-3. If the Pistons team from Game 2 shows up, they're going to be a tough out for anybody. If the one from Games 1 and 3 shows up, well, we hear Larry Brown is available.
Sorting out the hole story
Did your favorite team fall behind, 2-0, in the first round? That's not a great position to be in, for certain, but we've seen over the last five years - or since the NBA went to seven-game series in every round - that coming back from a 2-0 deficit is much more prevalent than it once was.
Consider that 13 teams have rallied from a 2-0 hole in a best-of-seven series since the Celtics were the first to do so in the 1969 NBA Finals against the Lakers. Consider that from 1977-78 through 1991-92, it never happened. Now, also consider this: Since 2003, the first year the NBA went to a seven-game series in the first round, there have been six teams - almost half the total - to do it.
That includes twice last season, when Utah recovered from a 2-0 deficit in the first round against the Rockets and when the Cavaliers did the same thing against Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals. And, of course, the year the Heat did it to the Mavericks in the NBA Finals.
The Mavs, however, own the distinction of rallying from a 2-0 hole against Houston in 2005 after losing the first two at home. The series went seven games and Dallas won Game 7 by a seat-squirming 40 points.
Additionally, eight teams in NBA history have rallied from a 3-1 deficit, and two of those have come in the last five years, the 2003 Pistons (who did it to Doc Rivers's Magic) and the 2006 Suns, who did it to the Lakers, winning Game 7 when Kobe Bryant decided to go MIA in the second half.
The message? Being down, 3-0, is still a death sentence. But the other two deficits don't necessarily mean it's time to hang the crepe.
A referee from the old school gets some high grades
We would be remiss if we did not note the passing of longtime NBA referee Darell Garretson, who died last week at the age of 76 in Arizona. He had his detractors, that's for sure, but he also was from the old school of refereeing, which involved knowing when to put the whistle in the pocket while also maintaining a professional/collegial relationship with the players.
A personal lasting impression of Garretson was his presiding over the great Game 7 in the 1981 Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics and 76ers. The Celtics rallied from a 7-point deficit in the final 5:24 and Garretson and Jake O'Donnell, as they say, let 'em play.
It was pretty much akin to a UFC situation on the court, with the Sixers getting mauled and no one going to the line. The Sixers shot 0 of 6 and had five turnovers.
On the play immediately preceding Larry Bird's famous bank-shot game-winner, Darryl Dawkins went in for a hoop, got hammered by both Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, and there was no whistle. (OK, Sixers coach Billy Cunningham didn't think the officiating was all that great.)
Garretson was influential in adding a third referee to games starting in 1988 and finally left the floor in 1994.
The Celtics' Sam Cassell remembered Garretson as one of a group of referees who had some panache and style.
"He was a good official because he was fair," Cassell said. "Back then, the old referees like Darell, Dick Bavetta [who still is around], and Mike Mathis, they communicated with the players. Right now, the referees can't do that. It's illegal." (Not really, but you get the point.)
"The referees back then, they wanted to see a good game and they really enjoyed the game of basketball. Now, the referees are restricted. They can't do a lot of things that the old referees can do."
If you build it . . .
Atlanta coach Mike Woodson paid his assistant dues at Milwaukee, Cleveland, and twice under Larry Brown, in Philadelphia and in Detroit. He was on the bench when the Pistons won it all in 2004. "That year was special," he recalled. "We had no turmoil whatsoever. We had no problems at all. It was like it was supposed to be. No one even got fined. Then, we got Rasheed [ Wallace], and he took us to an extremely different level." At the end of the season, a choice beckoned. Woodson could either stay with Brown and the Pistons (who lasted only one more year together) or accept his first NBA head coaching stint with a team that had won 28 games. "I saw an opportunity for Mike Woodson to make a statement," he said of his decision to go to Atlanta. "A chance to take a team and build it. It took three years [to get to the playoffs] and we're not there yet. But I like the direction we're headed."
The new leader for the Tom Van Arsdale Award? It's Jamal Crawford of the Knicks, who now leads active NBA players in games played without ever making a playoff appearance (532). His Knicks teammate, and former Bulls teammate, Eddy Curry is next with 501, followed by two former Warriors and current Pacers, Mike Dunleavy Jr. (481) and Troy Murphy (476). Darius Miles is next, but it might be a stretch to call him an active player given that he hasn't appeared in an NBA game in two seasons. Crawford, Curry, and the rest still have a ways to go to catch Van Arsdale, who played in 929 NBA games without ever seeing the postseason.
One of the lingering images of the Hornets-Mavericks series is New Orleans's David West poking the Mavs' Dirk Nowitzki on the cheek in kind of a "tsk, tsk" gesture. It's hard to tell what's more revealing, that West did it or that West got away with it. Magic Johnson had this observation: "I'm from the '80s, where something had to happen. Dirk, you have to do something or a teammate has got to do something. You can't let a man, not in the playoffs, put his hands up on your face." He's right, of course. The incident did nothing to shatter Dallas's image of an increasingly soft team at this point of the season. (The Mavericks had lost 10 of their last 12 playoff games before Friday's Game 3 win.) But it felt a little weird coming from the same guy who kissed Isiah Thomas before the start of games in the NBA Finals.
Four is a crowd
New Orleans's Chris Paul was beyond brilliant in the first two games of the Dallas series, prompting teammate Tyson Chandler to gush on his blog, "What's been more unbelievable is that he's scored 30-plus points in both games, but he hasn't been selfish at any point, trying to force the issue or anything." Paul is a pretty safe bet to make All-NBA first team, but how's this for irony: He might not be a safe bet to make Uncle Sam's Olympic team for the Beijing Games. Team USA already has Jason Kidd and Chauncey Billups as definites, and last week USA Basketball chieftain Jerry Colangelo touched on the rather crowded position of point guard, which also includes Deron Williams, who played last summer with Team USA while Paul did not because of injury. "We have some big decisions to make as we select the 12 because, at certain positions, we are kind of overloaded," Colangelo said. "The point guard spot happens to be one of them with Jason Kidd, Deron Williams, Chauncey Billups, and Chris Paul. It's going to be a tough selection.We have to monitor the injury situation to see who is 100 percent and able to participate. Chris Paul is certainly in the mix in a big way."
The drop zone
The Celtics' defensive improvement this season was obvious, dramatic - and almost historic. Last season, while the team did a lot of watching on defense, opponents shot 46.8 percent. This season? It was down to a league-leading 41.9 percent. According to the good folks at the Elias Sports Bureau, that is the second-largest drop in NBA history, topped only by the Spurs. In 1996-97, San Antonio allowed opponents to shoot 47.1 percent from the field. The next year, with the return to health of David Robinson and the addition of a rather promising rookie named Tim Duncan, the Spurs held opponents to a league-low 41.1 percent. But while Kevin Garnett was recognized (rightfully so) for the Celtics' improvement in being named Defensive Player of the Year, the 1997-98 winner was Dikembe Mutombo of Atlanta.
With his team facing an uphill struggle against battle-tested San Antonio, what better occasion for Shaquille O'Neal to consider another line of work. Such as . . . horse racing? Well, if you happen across this weekend's edition of The Daily Racing Form, you'll see Shaq in an advertisement for Vitamin Water wearing riding silks and getting ready to send a letter to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association announcing his intent to enter the Kentucky Derby. Shaq doesn't have a horse yet, but the in-good-fun ad is a followup to the racing spot he did for Vitamin Water for the Super Bowl. Offered one PR guy, "If an owner comes forward with a horse for Shaq to ride, will he step up and keep his word or would he back off?"
Peter May can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org