The Detroit Pistons are one loss away from giving up the Eastern Conference crown and seeing their dream season come crashing down, just six weeks after being proclaimed the consensus choice to win it all.
The Miami Heat are one victory away from moving on to the NBA Finals, after many had written them off as lacking in toughness and teamwork.
As we go into Game 5 in Detroit, with the Heat leading 3-1, we asked five of our writers what they make of this stunning twist of fate.
1. Are the Pistons done for this year? For the future? Were the 2004-06 Bad Boys real or myth?
Chris Broussard, ESPN Mag: The Pistons are done this year, going down in five or six. They are not done for the future, unless this disappointing postseason causes Ben Wallace to go elsewhere (Chicago?) in free agency. If they return intact, they will be a contender for the next two or three years.
From '04-06, Bad Boys The Remix was for real. I will go to my grave believing they were better than San Antonio in '05 and should have won back-to-back. There's no shame in losing to Shaq, D-Wade and another All-Star caliber player in Antoine Walker. But some people did go too far in praising The Remix. It was never one of the greatest teams ever. Anyone spouting that is delusional.
Ric Bucher, ESPN Mag: Maybe I'm in denial, but Detroit is like San Antonio for me -- it's hard to count them out until the heart monitor is going beeeeeeeeeeeeeep. ... That said, I wondered when the grind of going deep into the playoffs with the same main cast four straight years would take its toll. Well, we're seeing it. There's no reason they can't contend again next year, but they need a shakeup (not dramatic, but at least one starter) and an attitude adjustment.
John Hollinger, ESPN Insider: This year? Stick a fork in 'em. If they have to hold Miami under 85 to have a chance at winning, they're
not going to do it three times in a row. But that doesn't take away from what the Pistons have accomplished over the past three seasons: An NBA
title, two conference titles, and the league's best record. And next year I'm sure they'll be back.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN Insider: They're going to be done momentarily, whether it's tonight or Friday. They're just not as good as the Heat, and we should be giving Miami more credit rather than just picking apart the Pistons. Detroit was and still is one of the top four teams in the NBA, but the Pistons benefitted from playing in a weak Eastern Conference the past two years, and they won the title in '04 because the Lakers were a mess.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: They're not done and they weren't a myth, either. They broke up the dynastic Lakers and came within a couple minutes of back-to-back championships those things really happened and can't be taken away. But as I said when the Spurs were bounced by the Mavs, athleticism and quickness and depth are all increasingly crucial in today's NBA and the Pistons' starting five can no longer offset what they lack in those areas.
Tricky as it'll be to find the financial flexibility to address those needs, Detroit still has one of the best front offices in professional sports. So write the Pistons off if you wish. I prefer to wait and see how they fare when they search for bargains to bolster the bench or decide to break up the core to freshen things up.
2. Why has it gone wrong for Flip Saunders -- lousy coaching job, lousy timing in following Larry Brown, lousy development of bench, lousy luck in having the team fall apart right now, he's a scapegoat, or he's just the wrong guy for the job?
Broussard: Flip is a good coach, but he has to take a sizable hit for this. He played his starters too much in the regular season, and as I said from jump street, his emphasis on offense lessened this team's identity as a defensive powerhouse. They won back-to-back EC titles with rugged D, and without a coach who preaches that 24-7-365 and harps on it for all 48 ticks, you can't play that type of D. They're still very good defensively, but not the lockdown crew that they must be to win the East for a third straight time.
Bucher: Putting this on Flip is ludicrous on every level. First of all, Larry Brown's theatrics last year might very well have cost the Pistons a ring, so let's not suddenly make him out to be Clipboard Jesus. Secondly, the Pistons knew what they were getting: an offensively creative coach who wouldn't put them through the drama of last season. Flip utilized the anti-Larry sentiment and one of the few top teams that didn't have any injuries or major changes to post the league's best record.
Hollinger: Wrong place at the wrong time. Luck is always part of the equation in the postseason, and I think the Pistons had some incredibly good fortune the past two seasons. This year, the karmic pendulum has swung in the other direction -- they have to play against a healthy Shaq and Wade while Rasheed Wallace is limping.
Sheridan: He's definitely becoming a scapegoat in this series, the newcomer being set up to take the fall. He has been slow to figure out ways to stop D-Wade, but that's about the only major fault I can find with his coaching. It's not him out there missing jumpers. I expect Saunders to zone the Heat a lot tonight, because it worked in the third quarter of Game 4, but if the Pistons lose there will be more fingers pointing at him. Those same fingers were pointing at Brown after Game 7 against San Antonio a year ago.
Stein: He's the easy scapegoat and getting way more blame than he should, but Flip knew that's how it would be going in. The Pistons could have won 73 games in the regular season, but he was always going to be judged by how this team did in the playoffs. That's why I thought it was a gutsy move for him to take this job. Milwaukee wanted Flip badly, but he chose to replace Larry in Detroit, where only a championship is satisfactory.
I will say I'm heartened to hear that a few of his players have apologized for the recent second-guessing. The Pistons, remember, are supposed to be the ultimate team and they haven't been lately.
3. Why can't the Pistons score?
Broussard: The Pistons can't score because they rely too much on jump shots, plus they don't really have a guy who can break down defenders at will off the dribble, a la Kobe, D-Wade, LeBron. They have failed time and time again to establish a consistent post game, and when you rely too much on outside shooting, it can come back to burn you. No post, no drive, few points in the paint, few points overall.
Bucher: Same reason their defense was mediocre the entire season: They don't play with any urgency. The transition points that made them so giddy during the regular season have dried up, as they do every postseason, and the Pistons aren't being efficient at all in their half-court sets. Time after time, 15 seconds come off the shot clock and the offense starts over from a standstill. Multiple possessions go by with the ball never leaving one side of the floor. Flip isn't an isolation offense-type coach, so I know this isn't by design.
Hollinger: The aformentioned injury to Rasheed Wallace has hurt them, but even more than that four of the five starters just look out of gas (Prince being the exception). I'm wondering if three long playoff runs with no breaks (thanks to all that good health) have taken some wind out of their sails.
Sheridan: They're not playing together on offense as they did during the first two-thirds of the season, Rasheed Wallace's ankle injury is severely limiting his offense, and when the Pistons find something that works -- such as Tayshaun Prince's scoring prowess in the first quarter of Game 4 -- they don't stick with it. We're already at Game 5, and they still seem to be trying to figure out the Heat. It's probably too late.
Stein: Because they've been playing safe, slow and scared since about Game 3 of the Cleveland series. They've lost the confidence to attack and it's their offense -- not the defense -- that's costing them this Miami series. They need to speed up the game, expose Miami's holes on the perimeter and wear Shaq down. Chauncey Billups said many times during the season that the Pistons, under Flip, learned how to win with offense or defense. They're running out of time to prove it.
4. Should the Pistons re-sign Ben Wallace to a contract of approximately five years, $60 million?
Broussard: Ben is the heart and soul of that team, but he'll be 32 at the start of next season. I'd give him 4 years, $48 million, but I'd hesitate to go five/60.
Bucher: I would love to see Ben get paid because he's one of my all-time favorite personalities in the league, but if I were Joe Dumars the most I'd give him is three years. Big Ben's entire game is built on his energy and that is beginning to wane at times. I'll pay him $10 million a year for the next two-three years, but I wouldn't go beyond that.
Hollinger: If I was them I wouldn't except that I don't really see any alternative. Detroit's time is right now, and they're not going to find an instant replacement for Wallace easily while they're over the cap. Plus, Dumars runs the risk of alienating the other four guys if he lets Ben walk.
Sheridan: They seem to have backed themselves into a corner on this one by trading Darko Milicic and Carlos Arroyo to free up money for Ben, but they'll get diminishing returns over the next several years if they do, and they'll have to spend another big chunk of money next summer when Chauncey Billups opts out and becomes a free agent.
Stein: I'd like to think that the Pistons' struggles in these playoffs will convince Ben, a la Manu Ginobili and Bruce Bowen, to take a little less than he was expecting to increase the Pistons' flexibility for tweaking the roster. Probably not a reasonable expectation.
5. Is Pat Riley the genius who rebuilt the Heat or the lucky guy on the verge of presiding over an East that is embryonic (Cavs, Wizards, Bulls) and somewhat in shambles (Pistons, Pacers, Nets)?
Broussard: Riles is the genius. He orchestrated the trade for Shaq, he saw a superstar in D-Wade when everyone else saw a star at best, he brought the pieces there (Lamar Odom, Caron Butler) that allowed the Heat to trade for Shaq, he added the extra firepower (Walker, J-Will, GP, Posey) to aid an aging Shaq when no one else thought it was necessary, and he's been able to keep the egos from destroying the team. Give him his props.
Bucher: A little of both. Looking at the shambles the East is proving to be, are you telling me last year's Heat team brought back intact, coached by Stan Van Gundy, couldn't be in this same position? Riley's slim-shady move and the crocodile tears upon Stan's dismissal -- er, resignation -- prevent me from giving the unequivocal standing O. Riley's a genius the same way Tony Montana was: He went to unbelievable lengths to get what he wanted. Let's see, in the end, where it takes him.
Hollinger: Both. I don't think there's any doubt that Miami would have had a much tougher time getting out of the West.
But at the same time, Riley was the one who drafted Wade, pulled the trigger on the Shaq trade, and wasn't content to "Stand Pat" this past summer.
Sheridan: Genius is a pretty strong word, and while I'm certain Riley wouldn't mind being called one, I'd prefer to label him very, very smart. The players he added are filling in perfectly around Shaq and D-Wade, and his motivational messages are hitting home with a group that that needed to find some inspiration somewhere.
Stein: I've been panning his roster choices all season, but I have to put my hand up now. Unlikely as it looked all season, Riley has made this work. This team still has major issues on the perimeter -- defending outside and outside shooting -- but Riles still has the locker-room presence to make Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and Gary Payton accept their roles and make Shaq lose weight. Shaq always says he only wants to play for legendary coaches at this point in his career, but Riley made Shaq give him something in return for his coaching services. That's big.
6. Miami was 0-4 versus Dallas and Phoenix this season, losing by an average margin of 19 points. If they advance to the Finals, can the Heat handle the Mavs or the Suns?
Broussard: This is a far different and superior Heat team to the one that got bludgeoned by the Western stalwarts in the regular season. Remember, the Heat were just 2-12 against all Division leaders, East and West. Yes, they can hold their own and beat the Western winner, but if the West goes small (which I think it should), it will be tough for Shaq to avoid being exploited on the perimeter defensively. It will be a battle of wills. Who can dictate the tempo? I say the Heat can.
Bucher: Nothing has held form in this postseason, so predicting anything seems akin to spinning a roulette wheel. Manu Ginobili coming up both dumb and short to lose a series? The Suns walloping the Mavs while barely winning the fast-break and 3-point shooting battle? The Pistons allowing Dwyane Wade to flash to the rim untouched? Who are these people and what have they done with the NBA I was watching a month ago?
Hollinger: I think they'll have difficulty with Phoenix, and tremendous difficulty with Dallas. The Mavs have multiple bigs who can play Shaq and several defenders to run at Wade, plus the Heat don't match up as well against Dirk or against Dallas' quick guards. Phoenix presents many of the same problems on the perimeter, but the Suns are running out of players and have nobody to play Shaq, so Miami might fare better against them.
Sheridan: A Heat-Suns finals would bring a contrast of styles unlike anything the league has seen in years, if not decades, if not ever, and the team that dictated the style and tempo of play would prevail. Miami could do that. A Mavs-Heat matchup would be tougher for Miami, and I'd probably
pick Dallas because of the way Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry are playing. They're both tough covers for the Heat, more so than Shaq and D-Wade would be for the Mavs to defend.
Stein: If D-Wade continues to be brilliant and Shaq can consistently avoid foul trouble, I can't dismiss them totally. But I know that the two teams Miami hated to play during the regular season were Dallas and Phoenix. I realize these Heaters are not the same Heaters seen during the regular season, but the Mavs and Suns are likewise better than what they were. I just struggle trying to picture Miami keeping up with Dallas or Phoenix.
7. Which is more accurate: Shaq is taking his legacy to a new level, or D-Wade is knocking on MJ's door?
Broussard: Shaq is taking his legacy to a new level. This might once and for all put him ahead of Duncan, and that tired "he never won it without Kobe'' line will soon be put to rest. D-Wade has certainly been fantastic, but he is far too young to be compared to MJ. Plus, D-Wade will have to win multiple titles without a dominant big man to ever objectively be put in MJ's class.
Bucher: Shaq looks rejuvenated and D-Wade gets better every postseason, but the guy who is transforming his rep before our very eyes is Antoine Walker. Where is this Toine who settled far too often offensively and conceded too easily on D? He has been the perfect third-best player and who thought he'd ever accept that role, much less excel in it?
Hollinger: Shaq's legacy is already secure, and I don't think making the Finals as a second banana changes it much -- this is Wade's show. But let's get something straight: Few players even make it to the end of MJ's driveway, much less knock on his door.
Sheridan: D-Wade as the second coming. This guy is making shots that no one in the league has even attempted since Jordan was at his peak, and the new hands-off defensive rules are giving him a huge advantage by allowing him to beat any defender off the dribble or with one-on-one moves. Shaq is a minor player compared to Wade.
Stein: Shaq's legacy is already quite secure, but winning a fourth ring after the Lakers ditched him would be a pretty loud and memorable statement. In D-Wade's case, I simply don't want to subject him to Jordan comparisons. Yet I'm sure they're forthcoming anyway.
8. Is this season the last hurrah for the Heat?
Broussard: No last hurrah. I think the Heat could win it again next year. Shaq will still be very capable of getting 20 and 10, D-Wade is only going to get better, and the supporting cast will be that much more comfortable in their new roles. Remember how Magic helped an older, less dominant Kareem get multiple titles? Flash could do that with Shaq. I'm not saying another ring after this season is guaranteed, but they'll certainly be legit contenders.
Bucher: Not as long as they have Wade. They'll have to re-tool the team in major fashion, but Pat's done it once, I'm not about to say he can't do it again.
Hollinger: No. They have at least one more good run in them with this group, especially if the East continues to be this winnable. After that, Riley (or whoever is in charge then) will need to give the roster another makeover.
Sheridan: On the contrary, it's the first hurrah in what I see as a three-year window for them to ride the Wade-Shaq tandem before they need to figure out a new way to get scoring out of their big man. Gary Payton has lost a step or two, and he won't last all three years, but the rest of the core shouldn't be going anywhere.
Stein: Shaq's got at least another season or two of title contention left if he maintains his current weight and fitness level. It'll be interesting to see, if Miami did manage to win it all, whether Shaq and Riles want to keep going. Not sure why they would.