Pistons in Need of a Challenge

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2006; 4:03 PM

The Detroit Pistons are bored. Saturday night at Verizon Center, the Pistons didn't look like a team that was absorbing an 18-point beat down to the Washington Wizards. A few players were laughing in the final minutes when reserve forward Carlos Delfino made an awkward drive toward the basket. After the game, forward Rasheed Wallace was cracking jokes with guard Richard Hamilton and kidding point guard Chauncey Billups about wearing a corduroy sport jacket on a warm day in Washington. If the loss stung, it didn't show.

Asked if the loss concerned him at all, Wallace shrugged his shoulders and said, "Naw, not all." It's hard to be too worried when they are the only team in the NBA with 50 wins, but boredom was bound to beset a team that has been regarded as the best in the league all season. They haven't been pushed much this season and already own two 15-point victories against the San Antonio Spurs.

They look at a schedule in which nine of their last 20 games are against teams with winning records -- Miami, which the Pistons play twice, Dallas and Phoenix are the only remaining teams that are more than three games above .500 -- and they have started counting down the days until the regular season finale. "Unfortunately, we're looking too far ahead into the playoffs. We're so far ahead in the Eastern Conference we've let up a little bit," Billups said. "In a strange sort of way, [losing to the Wizards] was our best loss of the season because it showed us that you can't coast to the finish line."

They've said all along that their only motivation is making sure that Game 7 of the NBA Finals is played at the Palace of Auburn Hills -- not winning 70 games or topping the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who went 72-10 -- but their grasp on the league's best record has been shaky at best in recent weeks. The Pistons (50-12) are just 3-3 in their past six-games, which amounts to a slump for a team that started the season 37-5. "We haven't been playing well," center Ben Wallace said. "The last few games that we've won, it doesn't feel like wins."

The Spurs and Mavericks are chasing them down, but the motivation for the Spurs and Mavericks isn't necessarily catching the Pistons for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. They want to win the Southwest Division, take the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and have homecourt advantage in a possible second-round series against each other. The Spurs and Mavericks have to constantly keep an eye on one another because so much is at stake.

No team in the Eastern Conference is challenging the Pistons. The No. 2 seed Miami Heat is nine games back and the Cleveland Cavaliers are 14 games back in the Central Division. The East has been locked up for months, and they have already clinched a playoff berth. "You're at that area right now where you're almost at the end, but you're not quite there," said Pistons Coach Flip Saunders, who has been critical of his team's effort lately. "We can't just say that [we've been there before]. That's a cop out. Just because you've been there doesn't mean that you're going to be there again."

The Pistons believe that they are the best team on the floor entering every game and they have consecutive trips to the NBA Finals to support that belief. "I don't think you can fall back on that, but you can't change that," Billups said. "We know what it takes because we've been there. We've been at this point, too. We're playing a little lax. We're going to be fine, but it's just a little rut we're going through. Probably just being a little overconfident, knowing that we can come out with a light switch and turn it on. A lot of times, the best thing about a team can be the worst."

Their play hasn't been that erratic as last season, when they followed up their 2004 NBA championship with a 15-13 start to the season, but they have fallen into a similar trap of starting games slowly and building minor hurdles to overcome. "We've proved that when we do it the right way, we're the best in the league," Billups said. "When we don't, we can get beat by anybody. I'm not really concerned right now, I just know that we have an ability to turn it around and we still got the best record in the league. But I don't think we're playing the best in the league right now. There's a difference."

Team of the Week

Sacramento Kings

The Sacramento Kings (32-31) won four in a row last week to move one game above .500 for the first time this season and into eighth place in the West. They followed impressive road wins against Eastern Conference playoff contenders New Jersey and Milwaukee with home wins against Western Conference playoff contenders Memphis and Dallas.

Sacramento is 8-2 since the all-star break but to credit the Kings' turnaround exclusively to the acquisition of Ron Artest would oversimplify what has happened. Yes, the Kings are 14-7 (9-0 at home, 5-7 on the road) since Artest went out West, but this recent run also coincides with the return of Bonzi Wells (strained right groin) and the inspired play of point guard Mike Bibby, center Brad Miller and forward Kenny Thomas.

Bibby averaged 24 points, going 24 of 25 from the foul line and 10-for-22 from three-point range, in the past four games and has scored in double figures in 13 straight games. He's also averaging 7.1 assists in March. Miller, among the 23 players invited to try out for the U.S. Men's National Team, has scored in double figures in 19 consecutive games, recording three double-doubles since the break. And Thomas has had seven double-doubles since the all-star break.

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