AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Desperate? The Pistons?
"Not at all, not one bit," said Richard Hamilton before practice yesterday. "We proved we could go into their home court and win and they proved they could come into our home court and win. That's it."
If it's not rough, it's not right for these Pistons, huh? Isn't that the motto? Well let's burst that myth right here and now. Chauncey Billups uttered that now infamous phrase in 2005 and maybe it was applicable then.
It's not now.
"For whatever reason, we're at our best when that happens," Billups said. "I don't like it, but it's just who we are."
Really? Let's review:
Things didn't get rough in the 64-win 2006 season until they played Cleveland in the conference semifinals. They survived that one but never got right and eventually lost to Miami in the conference finals.
Then last year, it didn't get rough until they went to Cleveland for Game 3 of the conference finals and again, they never got right.
Well, here they are, another year older at yet another crisis point in a conference finals. Trailing, 2-1, coming off an embarrassing home loss to the ever-confident Celtics, with Billups, their captain and offensive leader, playing at a diminished capacity because of nagging soreness in his right hamstring and/or because of the unrelenting pressure applied by the Celtics' defense.
Is it rough enough, yet?
"We realize we've got work to do," Tayshaun Prince said. "We keep putting ourselves in this position, so we've got to find a way to get out of it."
The math is pretty simple at this point, but the numbers come out ugly for the Pistons either way. Win Game 4 tonight and it's a best-of-three series with two of those games in Boston; lose and it's all but over.
"The one thing this series has proven is that the team that can sustain their energy over the course of the game will win," coach Flip Saunders said. "We can't have anything less than all-out, throw-your-bodies-on-the-floor type energy - point-blank.
"At some point you throw out Xs and Os and it becomes about exerting your will."
Also, at some point for the Pistons, it has to be about not spotting the Celtics an early lead.
"It's about coming out early and setting the tone - same old, same old," Hamilton said. "We didn't beat Philly when they came out, 8-0, to start the game. We didn't beat Orlando when they came out, 8-0, and we aren't going to beat Boston when they come out, 11-0."
The Celtics led, 8-0, in Game 1, 10-4 in Game 2, and 11-0 in Game 3.
"My philosophy has always been to win the first three minutes and last three minutes of every quarter," Saunders said. "If you win those 24 minutes, you have a good chance of winning the game.
"We are getting off to such bad starts, then all of a sudden one guy thinks, 'I have to get us going,' and we start doing things one-on-one. That's out of character for us and then it just snowballs."
It doesn't help that the guy who usually steers the ship through trouble waters - Billups - has been rendered ineffective. Not only has he not been providing an offensive push, but he hasn't been able to manage the flow of the Pistons' offense like he typically does.
"I thought I just didn't personally do a good job of leading," Billups said. "And that's not just shooting the ball and scoring the ball, it's just leading. The game got away from us early and I think I didn't step up enough vocally when guys were missing coverages and things weren't going right.
"When I can't do the things I'm accustomed to doing offensively, there has to be other ways to have a presence out there. I always do add a presence and I think I waited too late [Saturday night] to step up and lead in that way."
Saunders said he will keep an eye on Billups early in Game 4. The team has played more forcefully and effectively when rookie Rodney Stuckey has been on the floor.
"[Billups] will be on a short leash as far as making sure he can do the things [physically] that he can do," Saunders said. "At this point, you throw everything out there. You lay it all on the line."
Here's what none of the Pistons want to believe, though there is evidence to support it: The Celtics are simply quicker and more powerful in too many key positions and they are choking the Pistons' offense.
The Celtics, playing off the adrenaline of their Game 7 win against Cleveland, limited the Pistons to 79 points in Game 1. They said the effects of the previous series caught up with them in Game 2 when the Pistons scored 103 points. But since, coach Doc Rivers has allowed his team to rest between games (the Celtics didn't practice again yesterday), and with fresher legs they suffocated the Pistons again in Game 3.
"They are quicker at some positions," Saunders said. "But if that's the case, then we have to make quicker decisions. When you play against quicker teams you can't hold the ball and wait. That gives them an opportunity to get into their [ball] denial positions and whatever else. We have to make quicker decisions."
Hamilton isn't buying that. When asked why they could move the ball in Game 2 and not at all in Game 3, Hamilton said, "We could have easily done it in Game 3, but we didn't. It's just paying attention to detail and knowing what got us that win in Game 2. We can't get a win then all of a sudden say, 'OK, we're going to play another way.' "
It comes back to hitting first and getting an early lead.
"When you get down, 11-0, the natural instinct is for everybody to feel like, 'OK, we got to do it ourselves.' We can't do it ourselves," Hamilton said. "They load up so much on the strong side, they won't allow you to do it [one on one].
"They have never had to play from behind. We're playing from behind the whole game."
There's a lot on the Pistons' plates entering Game 4, and not much of it looks too good at this point. But, like they say, they've been here before.
"We will come back. We have no alternative," Saunders said. "We have to come back strong. We blew a golden opportunity. These guys always say they like it tough, well, they should really be in love with it right now."