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Brown Delivered. Can Saunders?

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, May 29, 2006

MIAMI The guy on the very hot seat down here is named Flip. The upside when you take over a team as talented and accomplished as the Detroit Pistons, a finalist last year and a champion the year before, is that another title is probably within reach. Even if you didn't build it, you maintained it.

But the downside, if you lose before the finals, has real unpleasantness to it. You blew it. You messed it up. The guy before you simply did a better job.

The Detroit Pistons haven't lost anything yet, but Coach Flip Saunders is hearing the latter. What if Larry Brown were still here? Would the Pistons, a defensive marvel in the past, have allowed Miami to shoot nearly 60 percent in a Game 3 loss? Would the Pistons have lost five of their last eight playoff games if the coach were better at making adjustments?

The days off in an NBA playoff series carry sometimes brutal examination, even from within.

Asked the difference between today's Pistons and the Pistons of 2004 and 2005, especially on defense, Detroit's Ben Wallace said, "Night and day . . . night and day." He pointed out that his team has dropped defensively from No. 1 to "the middle of the pack." And several players indicated here before practice Sunday that Saunders, who was rightfully praised during the regular season for improving the team's defense, hasn't worked the team much at all on defense, that he barely has talked about it in recent days.

It's difficult to know whether the Pistons, down 2-1 in the Eastern Conference finals, are just unhappy with their predicament with Game 4 here on Monday, or whether there might be some actual unhappiness with the coach.

You don't want to read too much into the comments of the usually measured Tayshaun Prince, especially the morning after a completely frustrating 1-for-7 shooting performance. But Prince did say: "I was pretty disappointed we didn't give Lindsey Hunter any action in the second half. Obviously, he's our best suit for Dwyane [Wade], as far as putting pressure on him. I know Dwyane can shoot over him, but at least he has the quickness to be where he's at all the time. We didn't give him the opportunity [in] the second half."

Hmmm. Last I checked, only one person makes the call on whom to play: the head coach. Flip.

Prince wasn't done, either. "We went to our counter options" too early, he said.

Wallace said of the team defense, "There are breakdowns all over the place."

Rasheed Wallace said of not having his number called a lot early: "I don't know. That's a question I think y'all should ask Flip more than me because I guess it's more a coaching call."

To be fair, it was later in the same session with reporters that Wallace came back and said, "It ain't like he can come out there, throw some shorts on, lace some sneaks up and come out there with us."

And Saunders himself dismissed the notion that he's essentially on trial the rest of the playoffs, calling it, "no more pressure than ever before."

It's to Saunders's credit that he simply will not make the playoffs a referendum on his style and temperament vs. Larry Brown's.

Still, it was Chauncey Billups, the Pistons' point man and one of the most astute players in the league, who said: "Flip knew when he took this job it was going to be a lot of pressure. It was pretty much, 'Win or failure.' We got two minutes away from winning it all again last year. He knew it would be a tough job . . . but at the same time, when you look at all we had, it's a dream job, I thought. I'm sure there's a little pressure on Flip. But we don't look at it like that, and I don't think he's worrying about it."

It's ironic that Brown is being looked at as the guy who had all the answers when last year, some felt that players were starting to tune out the Hall of Fame coach. This time last year Brown had been in contact with the Cavaliers about going to Cleveland. As much as Billups appreciates Brown, he said of Saunders, "He's not harping on anything as much as our previous coach."

But there is the reality of the situation. Brown took the Pacers, 76ers and Pistons to the conference finals. He went to the NBA Finals with the 76ers and won with the Pistons. Brown, putting his personal dramas aside, is one of the great coaches.

Saunders, a very good coach, is still a work in progress.

As Billups said: "Of course, Larry had been there a lot more times than Flip has; [Brown] had a lot more experience in these situations. Larry was just relentless, no matter what. We could be up 3-1, down 3-1. Larry was really not going to change. He's going to be the same, which is what you love and respect him so much for. I think that Flip, right now, is trying to figure it out. He's looking at as much tape as he can to see what it is and make those small adjustments. He's only been to the [conference] finals one time before, in Minnesota. So this is somewhat new to him as well."

Saunders and his assistants might very well find, in all that video review, a way to spring free the offense, which has gone from averaging 106.6 points the first seven games of the playoffs to 82 points the last eight games. But the Pistons, by league design, might never get back to the defensive level of last year and the year before. The playoffs are being officiated differently this season, and it isn't only the Pistons who've had to adjust. Shaquille O'Neal found the moves he made for 13 years being judged to be offensive fouls in these playoffs.

Asked if the Pistons will be allowed to play the same kind of physical defense, Billups said: "No way. They put in all those rules, like the hand check, after we won the championship two years ago playing defense. Nobody wanted to see a defensive team in the Finals and winning. It's not as explosive. It's not as fun to watch. I don't like watching it either. I'm not mad at 'em. But you look at us against San Antonio last year. Two really good defensive teams in the Finals played seven games and got the worst ratings in history almost. Seven games. There hadn't been a seventh game in the NBA Finals in a lot of years, man. But look at the first-round series this year. Lakers-Phoenix and Washington-Cleveland had ratings out of the roof. They're running up and down the floor, no defense being played, shooting and running and gunning. That's fun to watch. So they put in those rules to keep it from being 89-85."

Brown didn't have to contend with a league that doesn't find what the championship Pistons did to be aesthetically pleasing. Saunders does. But Brown's Pistons, in every round of the playoffs, found ways to fight back when they were behind. Saunders, shortsighted as it is, will be judged over the next few games on whether his team can do at least as well.

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