<
>

Detroit reserves not seeing much court time

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sometimes the answers to our problems are right in front of us.

In Larry Brown's case, they're sitting beside him.

When the Pistons head coach reviewed the Game 3 film, early in the screening he must have thought he was watching a rerun of Game 2. As a result, his day-after-game comments were somewhat redundant: Brown on Thursday was critical of his players' lack of effort, having noticed that the little things the Pistons did to win Game 1 -- like hustle for loose balls and challenge shots -- were missing, and he expressed similar sentiments Saturday, a day after a 79-74 Pacers win that put Detroit at a 2-1 disadvantage in their best-of-7 series.

"I didn't think, in the first half, until the last four minutes that our effort was matching theirs," Brown said.

A suggestion: Do something about it. Specifically, Brown should give his reserves something to do other than provide him with insight and enjoy their courtside seats.

The difference in this East semifinal series so far has been all the different people Indiana coach Rick Carlisle is running in and out of games. The Pacers' starters have shot poorly the past two games, but they've been given shots in the arm by reserves Jeff Foster (who's playing like he and Dennis Rodman were separated at birth), Anthony Johnson, and the Jones boys, Fred and James.

If Detroit is going to extend its season, Brown has to extend his rotation beyond seven and give Carlos Arroyo, Elden Campbell, Ronald Dupree, Darvin Ham, and Darko Milicic -- well, maybe not Darko Milicic -- more of a chance to contribute. Detroit has arguably the best starting five in basketball, but its lack of depth is being exposed, its bench having been outscored by the Pacers, 47-21, in Games 2 and 3 combined.

But that's a misleading stat, because, other than Lindsay Hunter and Antonio McDyess, Detroit's reserves haven't had much exposure to the court.

Arroyo, Campbell, Ham, and Milicic all logged "DNP-Coach's Decision" the last two games, while Dupree played five minutes in Game 2 before watching all of Game 3. Four Detroit starters logged 40 minutes or more in Game 3 and three played at least 40 in Game 2. This after Brown vowed to use his bench more than he did in the opening-round series against Philadelphia, and after Arroyo and Dupree saw action in the first quarter of the series opener.

Brown defended his decision not to go deeper into his bench Friday by pointing to the fact that Detroit rallied from a 17-point deficit with 7:22 left in the third to briefly take the lead late in the fourth.

My problem with that is that it took Detroit too long to get going. The Pistons were in a collective funk for six quarters, from the second quarter of Game 2 through the first three quarters of Game 3, when they scored, in order, 17, 19, 14, 11, 17, 17, and 17 points. During that stretch they looked lethargic, lackadaisical, even, at times, lazy. And they were being outworked by a scrappy Pacers bunch.

Hunter made two great hustle plays Friday night when he blocked Johnson's breakaway dunk from behind in the final minute of the third quarter, and got on the floor to steal the ball from Johnson early in the fourth. McDyess carried the Pistons offensively for a short stretch of the second quarter.

Maybe Ham and the gang can give Detroit that kind of effort, too. Might the subs, while not to mention giving the starters a needed break, be able give the Pistons a lift when they're in danger of falling too far behind?

Brown hasn't been willing to find out. Hunter and McDyess haven't been left in the game long enough to get any sort of rhythm. Coaches traditionally shorten their rotations for the playoffs, but there have been several times in these past two games when I've expected Brown to tell his starters, "If you don't get the job done, I'll find somebody who will!" If he's unwilling to do that, then why do the Pistons have five guys getting paid for nothing?

"I don't think you can come from 17 down with a short bench and say you don't have energy," the Hall-of-Fame coach countered. "Lindsay gave us unbelievable energy. He made some of the most unbelievable defensive plays, effort plays, you can possibly make. [McDyess] did a good job. We gave ourselves every chance to win by the way we defended late, and I think that's the first sign of fatigue is that you can't guard and keep people in front of you.

"I always want to play our bench. But when we got down so badly … my assistants were yelling at me for not putting Rip [Hamilton] back in the game in the first half [when he was] in foul trouble. And I kept telling them, 'We're not out of this game. We'll have ample time to get back. I don't want him to pick up a silly foul and not have him able to play because he's got to guard Reggie.'

"If our team was a little deeper, then maybe you go a little deeper. But right now we're going with this Cadillac."

But if his starters continue to struggle, Brown needs to find a way to squeeze more than two extra passengers into his ride, else he risks being passed by counterpart Carlisle's packed minivan.

The blessing in disguise bestowed upon the Pacers in the form of a) the fallout from the Nov. 19 brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills and b) extended time missed by Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley during the regular season is manifesting itself in this series. Dealing with adversity not only strengthened Indiana's resolve but also it's depth. Fred Jones, who at the beginning of the season was just trying to fit into the rotation, actually led the Pacers in total minutes played this season (2,268). He had eight points in Game 3. Indy might be the deepest team among the final eight. The Pacers go 10, 11 deep, giving Carlisle the luxury of subbing for situations and matchups.

"We're trying to keep our team as fresh as we can," Carlisle said. "We know their top seven are great players, very experienced players, and I know that there's a good chance they'll use some of their other guys more as the series moves on. We're trying to do everything we can to keep fresh bodies on the court and wear them down. For us, there's strength in numbers."

The Pacers' strength clearly is wearing on Detroit. Pacers backup point guard Anthony Johnson says he's noticed that at times the Pistons have been late getting back on defense in transition, something he attributes to the Indy second unit's edge in energy. When the Pacers secured the rebound and got the ball out quickly in Game 3, they were able to take it to the basket or drive and kick for open jumpers.

"When we come off the bench, those guys, they have a tough time dealing with our starters, so they're down a little bit," Johnson said. "So that's when we try to come in with great energy and pick up our pressure defensively. We definitely just try to wear those guys down because they're pretty much a five-man team.

"Everyone at some point this year carried the load [for the Pacers]. That only pays dividends come playoff time."

O'Neal can see the effect in the Pistons' posture, how they're leaning over, grabbing their shorts, and not talking among one another as much.

"If they're going to keep playing six or seven guys, we feel like our chances are good. But you can't really look at it like we have an edge because it hasn't been decided yet. If we win this series, we can say, 'Where we had the edge was on the bench.' But right now, it's too early to say."

Carlisle said he expects to see more of the Pistons' reserves. Brown would be wise to make a prophet out of him.

"With [the Pacers], they have so many guys playing in this series, it's the same way they played their season," Ham said. "They got just a little bit from all of their guys to make it this far. They have to do that. They can't just play a five-man or six-man game. That's their game."

Right now, to the surprise of many, it's the Pacers' series. It's Brown's move. Four Pistons haven't moved off the bench in two games. Brown needs to change that if Detroit is to alter the direction of the series.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.