Masked McDyess sets the tone for Pistons

PHILADELPHIA -- When it came time to save his job, and that's pretty much what the situation boiled down to in the moments after the Detroit Pistons exited the court at halftime trailing by 10 points, coach Flip Saunders ripped into every single member of the team -- except one.

"I told them: I looked at us playing in the first half, and we've got Antonio McDyess, who got operated on yesterday in Detroit, flew back and was throwing up all night, and he's competing harder than anybody," Saunders said.

"I said: 'That should show you how bad he wants it, and we all should look at what he's doing, and we've all got to be willing to make the same sacrifices.'"

Whether or not it was Saunders' best Knute Rockne material, it was an outburst the players needed to hear after sleepwalking through the first 24 minutes of Game 4 playing the same sloppy, uninspired ball that got them in so much trouble against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second half of Game 1 and throughout Game 3.

A loss would have sent the Pistons home trailing the best-of-seven series 3-1, and the Saunders job watch (or would it be better to call it a firing watch?) would have been on full tilt heading into what would have been a do-or-die Game 5 back in Auburn Hills.

Instead, the Pistons emerged for the second half even more energized than they were in Game 2 -- the last time they dug into their resiliency reserves -- and steamrolled the Philadelphia 76ers with a 30-10 blitz to open the third quarter, turning that 10-point halftime deficit into a 10-point lead that allowed them to play with a cushion for the rest of the evening. Detroit won 93-84, tying the series 2-2.

In the third quarter, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace each shot 3-for-3 (all of Sheed's shots were 3s), and the Pistons had 11 second-chance points off seven offensive rebounds and 11 additional points off seven Philadelphia turnovers.

Those active hands on defense that the Sixers had used so well in the first half (and throughout Game 3) suddenly belonged to the Pistons, and the perfect combination of poise, energy and focus that so often eludes these Pistons all converged as the game underwent a complete change of character.

Prince went on to make all three of his shots in the fourth quarter, finishing 11-for-12 for the game and making him 19-of-21 over the past two games.

"The coaches told us if we played too fast, we played into their hands. We really tried to get Chauncey and Rip going, but we were rushing things a little bit. Once we settled down in the second half, things started to go," Prince said. "We were all talking to each other, that's what we do, but Flip was more vocal than anyone."

Larry Brown was Saunders' predecessor and led the Pistons to a championship and a Game 7 in the 2005 NBA Finals. Then Saunders took over, and his three-year run as Detroit's coach included elimination game flameouts in the 2006 Eastern Conference finals against Miami and the 2007 Eastern Conference finals against Cleveland.

Pistons team president Joe Dumars lamented all last summer over how sick he was of losing to teams that might have been less talented but were much hungrier, but no matter which buttons Saunders tried to push, hunger was exactly what was lacking from the Pistons for a majority of this series.

But hunger -- all different kinds of hunger -- is what fueled McDyess' first-half play after he was replaced in the starting lineup by Jason Maxiell. The Pistons needed his effort, too, with Richard Hamilton shooting 1-for-10 in the first half and Chauncey Billups going 2-for-8. Take away McDyess' 4-for-6 and Prince's 5-for-6 shooting, and the rest of the Pistons were 6-for-28 with nine turnovers.

"They really wanted it, and we let it slip away," Philadelphia's Willie Green said.

McDyess, who had flown to Detroit the previous morning at 5 a.m. to undergo surgery to repair his broken nose, was sickened by the anesthesia and was unable to hold down any food after returning to Philadelphia at sundown Saturday night.

The nausea stuck with him Sunday morning, and all McDyess could get down prior to the game were some bananas, oranges and pineapple.

"At halftime I said: 'Are we having fun yet?' because we weren't," Saunders said. "I said we were playing tight, like we were afraid to take a shot, afraid to make a move, and when you're playing like that you're thinking too much and you're going to make mistakes."

"Just relax and settle down," Saunders pleaded. "We're a good basketball team. Get in the flow. Go out there and have some fun. Go out there and hit somebody. When you hit somebody, you have fun. We came out and a couple of good things happened early, which helped a lot, and we finally exerted our will defensively. … We played how we're capable of playing."

The problem with the Pistons is this: How they're capable of playing, and how they actually play, are often two distinctly different things.

That's why an air of mystery remains heading into Game 5 Tuesday night with the series tied 2-2 (Game 6 is Thursday night in Detroit).

Almost everyone can see that the Pistons are the better team, but the Pistons don't act like the better team until they really need to. They play too much with fire, and sometimes they get burned. At some point, all those burns have the potential to add up to disfigurement.

"Obviously this was the biggest game of the playoffs for us," Prince said. "We were able to take care of business today. But we put ourselves in tough positions all the time, and if you keep doing it, at some point you're not going to get out of it."

This time, they did.

Next time?

It may take another Knute Rockne moment from Saunders, and there's no telling how many of those he has left in him -- or whether the Pistons will take his words to heart next time they hear them. If they don't, it's hard to see Saunders not having to coach for his job again sometime in the near future.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.