It was the embattled Red Wings coach of 1970-71, Ned Harkness, who, in his dwindling days as the team’s coach before being kicked upstairs to the GM job, gave this summary of his players’ performance after yet another uninspired effort.
“Our guys,” Harkness sneered, “didn’t so much as breathe on the other team.”
Ned came from the college ranks, where he led Cornell to two NCAA Championships and where the players actually listened to the coach. Having Ken Dryden as his goalie didn’t hurt, either.
But Ned’s message never got through to the veteran NHL players he assumed control of in 1970. In fact, they mutinied against him. They turned in one poor effort after another, in a vain attempt to get Harkness fired. There was even a petition that went around the dressing room, signed by almost every player, asking for Harkness’s head.
The kicker was a 13-0 blowout loss in Toronto on January 2, 1971, which the NHL Network sometimes shows as a “classic” because of the record-setting nature of the game. If you ever get the chance, watch it, if for no other reason than to see what happens when an NHL team puts forth a shameful, lackluster effort.
The Red Wings, that night, didn’t so much as breathe on the Maple Leafs.
Kind of like what happened Tuesday night at The Palace.
The Pistons bowed meekly to the Boston Celtics, 109-86, and even that score is deceiving.
I’ve seen the Pistons win 16 games and lose 66. I’ve seen them play before thousands of empty seats in Cobo Arena, when you could hear the coaches talking to their players during timeouts and where you might go to catch up on your reading, or trigonometry homework.
I’ve seen the Bad Boys disintegrate from World Champions to the dregs of the NBA, within three years. I’ve seen them lose their way again in the late-1990s and early-2000s, barely able to compete with the league’s elite.
But I’ve never seen them lay down on the court like they did against the Celtics Tuesday night.
The Pistons played as if someone had just rousted them from bed minutes before tip-off. They were as interested in playing the Celtics as a vegetarian at a pig roast.
To steal Ned Harkness’s words, the Pistons didn’t so much as breathe on the Celtics.
The interior defense was a bad rumor that didn’t get past its third recipient. The Pistons left their back door swinging open all night long and the Celtics’ superior passers took advantage from the get go.
In the not-so-distant past, a visit from the Celtics was tantamount to a playoff affair. It was one of the hottest tickets in town. A nifty little rivalry had been built, dating back to the 1987 Conference Finals.
This was an early chance for the Pistons to show that their 0-3 start was simply a case of letting games slip away, as opposed to any unforgiving chasm between them and the rest of the league. It was a chance to rinse away the taste of Saturday’s debacle in Chicago, where they blew a 21-point second half lead.
It was a chance to beat a quality team and right the ship.
Instead, the Pistons laid down—never bothering to show up at all. It was an embarassing, shameful effort that speaks volumes about the state of the team.
It appears that coach John Kuester has, after just four games, lost this squad. He’s taken to publicly call for leadership, taking his crusade to the press.
“We have to collectively somewhere, somehow find another voice besides my own that is going to lead us and also have that passion,” Kuester told the media after the game, according to MLive.com. “It can’t be when things are going good. It has to happen when things are going rough, and it can’t just be one person.”
In cruel irony, one of the players Kuester would like to look to for leadership instead is helping to bury the coach.
Tayshaun Prince, who got into some verbal sparring with fans during the game, gave this retort to his coach’s plea for leadership.
“He’s right but, at the same time, it goes both ways,” Prince said. “We can sit in here and get on each other and be vocal, but like I said, the right thing’s got to come from him as well as us.
“It goes both ways,” Prince continued. “If he wants to say we’ve got to be more vocal, then he’s got to do some things better, too. Everybody has to do something better.”
All this drama, and the season is just four games old.
“Old” being the operative word.
The Pistons’ lack of effort defensively is getting old. Watching opposing teams frolic in the paint and enjoy dunks and layups is getting old.
The Pistons are lifeless, playing despicable basketball and tarnishing what was once a proud franchise.
They are fractured, showing frightful signs of giving up on a season that just began.
The coach is without answers and no one who wears a uniform seems to have his back.
It’s not that the Pistons can’t compete with the rest of the league. It’s worse than that—it’s that they won’t.
If this nonsense carries on much longer, I again call on GM Joe Dumars to coach this team himself. Kuester is another Pistons coach who is a dead man walking, like Michael Curry before him and Flip Saunders/2008 before Curry.
The Pistons didn’t so much as breathe on the laughing, frollicking, slam-dunking Celtics Tuesday night, in the Pistons’ own building. They sullied the franchise’s good name and are making being a Piston a league-wide joke.
Shame on them.