By most measures the Pistons ended the regular season with a bang. Not counting the last four games when the starters were rested, the team finished the season by winning twelve of fourteen by an average margin of 8.3 points per game. The stretch included quality wins – twice over Miami (by an average margin of 11), twice over Indiana, and against Dallas, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Cleveland. They lost to New Jersey at home with a day off before, and by two points to Orlando on the second night of a back to back following a victory over Miami. Before the Miami game on April 6th, Flip says "It's like playing poker, you don't want to show your hand too early, on the other hand, once the game starts and we see 'Miami' across the front of their jerseys and they see 'Detroit' across ours, the competitive juices start flowing." After the game, Sean Deveney at The Sporting News asks “When speaking of (Pistons versus Heat), it seems that folks consistently ask the wrong questions. How will the Pistons stop the Heat's offense? What will they do with Shaquille O'Neal? How can they contain Wade? Will they double-team? Will they use a zone? Doesn't matter. The question that should be asked: How can Miami's defense slow down the Pistons? The game's turning point -- Wade letting his man run free on a fast break -- is part of a wider problem that few in Miami will admit, not with the way Wade has carried the offense this season, and not after Wade poured in 29 points on 11-for-22 shooting Thursday night. Reality, though, is grim.” It seems clear given the conference finals to come that Riley was the coach playing his cards pretty close to his vest. In a bit more than 24 hours after the Miami game cracks appear in the Pistons’ foundation. Hamilton leaves the team to attend a funeral. Delk plays well against Orlando, scoring 18, but misses two free throws that would have tied the game in the closing moments. More importantly, down by eight with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, Flip takes BBen out of the game for a quick blow. When Flip tries to put him back in a couple of minutes later, BBen refuses to reenter the game. An uneasy truce is formed between Wallace and Saunders in the ensuing days, but no one seems very happy. Despite Wallace’s blowup about how the team is performing defensively, the Pistons win the last two games that count, against Indiana and Cleveland by holding both to 73 points while scoring 98 and 96. The Pistons never have a chance to work through any residual issues stemming from the Orlando game as they begin to rest the starters. Several sit out entire games, while the others play less than half their usual minutes. The result is one win (Knicks) and three losses (Raptors, Bucks, and Wizards). The makeshift lineups play fairly well on the offensive end, averaging 95 points in the four games (equal to the team’s average scoring over the prior twelve). However, they do not fare so well on the other end, giving up an average of 104 points per game, more than 17 more than in the prior twelve contests. Still, home court advantage is achieved and it’s off to the playoffs. Round One – Pistons versus Bucks After finishing the season on the losing end of an 18 point pasting from the Wizards on April 19th, the Pistons open the playoffs against Milwaukee on April 23rd. No one really expects it to be a series. Those who don’t call for a sweep really believe that the Pistons will win in four, but are afraid to appear over confident and predict four to one. Game one goes as expected. The Pistons are one three ball away from their recent average offensive output (92 versus 95), and shut the Bucks down on the other end, allowing only 73 points. The second half is a game of runs, Pistons 13-2, Bucks 8-0, Pistons 11-0. Sandwiched in between the unthinkable happens. For the first time since Sheed limped in and out of the lineup with a bum foot against the Lakers in the finals two seasons ago, a Piston goes down. Rip sprains this ankle and you could hear a pin drop in the Palace. Hamilton starts game two, but doesn’t move well. The Bucks rebound offensively from the game one jitters, scoring 98. Even slowed, Rip hits seven out of twelve and dishes out eight assists as the Pistons roll offensively, shooting 51% from the floor and putting up 109. Pride takes over for the Bucks in game 3 at home and they can’t miss from the field, shooting over 60%. The Pistons continue to shoot well, at nearly 50%, but can’t overcome the onslaught and lose 104 to 124. They bounce back in a close game four, dominating in the fourth quarter turning a two point deficit into a ten point win (109-99). Game five back at the Palace is a laugher as the Pistons score 39 in the first and 35 in the third to take a 97 to 74 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Bucks get two back in the fourth, but still lose 122 to 93. And so the first round ends, impressively. The Pistons average 107.2 per game, 0.1 points less than the high flying Phoenix Suns. They shoot the ball extremely well, bettering their regular season marks in all categories. Rebounding is slightly down, mostly on the offensive end by 0.9 boards per game. But, that happens when you miss fewer shots. The Pistons also become even more infatuated with the three point shot, taking 28% of their attempts from beyond the arc versus 22% during the regular season. Assists are up and turnovers down. However, steals are down by 0.9 per game and blocks down by 1.6 per game. Fouls however are up by 1.5 per game. Round Two – Pistons versus Cavaliers Still, any criticism at the time just seemed like quibbling. The kids were on a roll and no one gave the Cavs any sort of a chance. You could almost see the golden halos around the team’s heads, like in a medieval manuscript, just waiting for the crowns to descend. There are rest days to be had and surely Rip’s ankle will come around. Surely it was all over but for the shouting. Game one does nothing to change anyone’s mind. The Pistons scored a franchise record 43 points in the second quarter and the game was essentially over. The pundits began to praise Flip’s defensive schemes that give LBJ no room to move. Game two is more of the same. The Cavs made a fourth quarter run to close the gap, but it seemed like far too little far too late. Continuing just where they left off with the Milwaukee series, the Pistons average 105 points per game in the first two, while only allowing 88.5. In the interim the all NBA defensive team is announced. BBen anchors the first team and Tay and CB make the second. Sheed, trying to figure it out all, says that if the statue for defensive player of the year was a man in the defensive stance, Billups' trophy would have a guy reaching around a ball handler who dribbled past him. Also in the interim Larry Hughes’ younger brother dies after a lifelong battle with a heart condition. Hughes leaves the team to be with his family. Game three marks what we would find later to be the beginning of the end for the Pistons. LBJ plays the entire 48 getting a triple double in the process. Varejao is the hero off the bench, going six for seven from the field and four for five from the line. The Pistons shoot 39% from the field and turn the ball over 16 times, nearly five more than in the regular season. All right everyone says, the Cavs are a good team and it’s silly to think they are going to get swept in the semi-finals. Sheed however says the Cleveland fans need to get their fill of the team in game four because the series will not return there. Game four is simply an ugly, low scoring intense NBA playoff game. The Pistons can’t throw the ball down and hit the floor. They shoot 33% from the field, 28% from three. Turnovers outnumber assists. The starters play 84% of the available minutes and three get over forty. And for only the second time in hundreds of games a Pistons’ starter goes down with an injury. Sheed turns an ankle in the game and fails to find his rhythm for the remainder of the playoffs. Rip continues to look a step slow and suddenly the air of invincibility is gone. In what will come to be a pattern, LBJ drives the lane time after time in the fourth. It was a two point game with ten ties and fourteen lead changes that the Pistons could have just as easily won. But close doesn’t count, and close doesn’t carry over. Guaransheed isn’t. The Pistons return home on May 17th with the series even. The entire Cavs team goes to the funeral of Larry Hughes’ brother in the days between games three and four. They know they will have to win in Detroit to advance and come in ready. The Pistons substantially improve their two point shooting from the prior game, hitting over 46%. But, they go two for ten from three, and only 64% from the line. The Cavs have teased with the hack-a-ben strategy throughout the series, but in this game it really starts to hurt. BBen goes zero for seven from the line. Despite his struggles and that Sheed can only manage 22 minutes on the gimpy ankle, no other big man beyond Dice gets off the bench. Three starters go for over forty minutes. And most ominously, the starting guards can’t hit a shot, going eleven for thirty-two for 34%. They say it isn’t a series until you lose at home. Game five is another two point victory for the Cavs and it sure is a series now. Game six is another two point difference, this time for the visiting Pistons. Sheed, while still grimacing every other trip down the floor, comes to play with 24 points, four assists, and two blocks. CB continues to struggle from the field, shooting 38%, though still better than the 31% the two Wallaces manage from the free throw line. This time the Pistons play the Cavs even in the fourth and manage a win. But, four starters play over 40 with Hunter’s sixteen the largest bench stint. Game seven proves to be classic old school Pistons, when scoring eighteen points in a quarter can give you an insurmountable lead. The Cavs manage 38 points in the first half but are held to 23 in the second including a ten point third quarter. The Pistons continue to struggle from three (3-13) and from the line (18-32). They win by relentlessly pounding the boards, outrebounding the Cavs 48 to 36. A breath held far too long is released and everyone starts playing highlights of the Pistons’ nine and thirteen point wins over the Heat in April. Round 3 – Pistons versus Heat Coming off the Cavs’ series, the Pistons have played nine games in 21 days, including five in the last nine. They get one day’s rest before starting an every other day schedule against the Heat. They look tired. All you need to look at is guard shooting – 14 of 21 for the Heat versus 15 of 41 for the home team. The remaining Heat players shoot 48% even counting Haslim’s oh fer seven. All told the Pistons shoot 39% from the field and 54% from the line. Dale Davis gets into the game for 35 seconds and Cato does not play. Shaq shoots six of twelve and only goes to the line four times in the five point win. Game two begins well for the Pistons with a 25 to 12 first quarter. The Heat drop one point further behind in the second and third. But, they pull within two points with nine seconds left but CB makes two from the line and the game is over. Deep breath, big sigh. One shot one way or the other and the Pistons are down two. Neither Rip not Sheed look like the players they were earlier in the season. All of the starters continue to log heavy minutes, now on their seventh game in twelve days. Games three and four in Miami are solid grind it out Heat wins. In the two games Wade shoots 75% (21 of 28) while Rip shoots 33% (10 of 30). The Pistons miss 21 free throws shooting 62% from the line across two games they lose by a total of 26 points. Besides being a win to keep the Pistons in the series, game five is the story of what might have been. The Pistons shoot 48% from two, but only two of fifteen from three. Shooting their regular season percentage from three would have added eleven points to the margin of victory and might have supplied a much needed confidence boost. 102 to 78 would have helped a lot going into game six in Miami. But, it was not to be and neither was game six. The Heat start strong and continue through three quarters, building a 19 point lead. For the game the Pistons shoot 35% from two, 29% from three, and 75% from the line. Their turnovers were not bad. Their assists were good, as were steals and blocks. There were open shots to be had. It’s just that no one could make them. With their backs to the wall, Rip shoots 43%, CB 21%, Sheed 33%, Prince 33%, BBen 40%, and the bench combine for three of thirteen for 23%. It really wasn’t until the end of the third quarter of game six that the Pistons began to admit to themselves that they could be beat as they finally owned up to the fact that they hadn’t played a good all around basketball game in weeks. If there is any bright spot to be found, it is in Rip’s play in the final twelve of game six. By my count he shoots five for eleven in the quarter staging a one man comeback attempt. It was way too little, and way too late, but it was one man refusing to look at the scoreboard, refusing to go gently. Two of his misses were jump shots, one blocked. Four were drives into the heart of the Miami defense, several of which were blocked. Rip doesn’t shoot a free throw in the quarter despite repeated contact. And just like that, it is gone. From a chance at best all time regular season record to out in six in the conference finals, the season ends. The Pistons win three of seven (43%) games with a final margin less than ten points. In 10+ point games they win seven of eleven (64%). When they rolled they couldn’t be stopped. When it was time to grind they fell down. The significance of this change from the Carlisle and Brown years should not be missed. Especially when you consider that most of those close losses didn’t come from Pistons’ missed shots, but from their inability to stop high scoring penetrating guards. Anyone remember the no fly zone? A lot of starter minutes and the lack of a spark off the bench must also contend for blame. While NBA players ought to be able to play in the mid thirties for a full season, the last weeks of the playoffs jammed a lot of games into a small number of days. Without doubt the team wore down. And with no identity or much experience the bench wasn’t able to add anything when it counted. No Hunter/James duo chasing opponent backup guards off the floor. No inside scoring off the bench. No change in tempo. Finally, injuries played a major role. In general the Pistons don’t talk much about how banged up they are, but Rip was never the same ball hawking guard that shut Michael Redd down early on. Sheed never got the shooting touch back after his ankle went sideways. BBen’s wrist probably should have been operated on. Dice’s wrist/hand essentially removed him from the game, especially in the Miami series. Look back at the video and see how many times he tries to catch the ball one handed. Yes, injuries happen – the Wade list is longer than this article, but the Pistons had no answer when they did happen because no one was prepared to step up off the bench. For the past two seasons the team gambled on health. They came up eighteen games short this year. The Numbers - Playoffs 2006 Round One Round Two Round 3 Playoff Totals All statistics are from www.nba.com. The article archives at www.pistonsforum.com were also extensively used.