Greg Eno

Archive for the ‘playoffs’ Category

It Was Wild When Playoffs Meant Finishing First

In MLB, playoffs, Wild Card on August 19, 2007 at 5:51 pm

The heat of one of the National League’s best pennant races drove Juan Marichal batty – literally. The year before, his baseball team gagging uncontrollably, manager Gene Mauch succumbed to a pennant fever that threatened to send mercury bursting thru the top of the thermometer. A couple years after Marichal’s explosion, Detroit’s Dick McAuliffe broke Tigers fans hearts by grounding into a season-ending double play – the first time he’d done such a thing all year. Five years later, McAuliffe and his teammates whooped and hollered as they plopped manager Billy Martin into an ice-filled whirlpool, enjoying their vengeance over the Red Sox. In 1978, the Yankees demolished the Red Sox in Fenway Park in a four-game sweep called, aptly, The Boston Massacre.

The Tigers and Indians are duking it out in another one of those inaccurately described “pennant races.” It’s a divisional race, to be exact. The pennant can only be raised if you are the only team left standing when the two-tiered playoffs are done. And, with the Wild Card in the mix, even divisional races are diluted. Lose the AL Central, Bunkie? That’s OK; you can still qualify. Just beat out some other team in some other division. Wild stuff.

Regardless, the ballclubs from Detroit and Cleveland, a puddle-jumping flight over Lake Erie away from each other, are playing rock-paper-scissors with a division that, at times, nobody appears to want to win. It used to be that great “pennant races” were between two teams that responded from the other’s blows with one haymaker of their own. Now, it hardly matters if the victorious team has but 84 wins, or 88, or some other unworthy number. As long as it’s close, we proclaim it marvelous baseball theater.

But this isn’t a blow-by-blow race right now, between the Tigers and Indians. Lately, the Tigers lose and stagger – then the Indians respond with some bad baseball of their own. They’re trading blows alright – but both teams are mostly on the receiving end from a third party. The Indians lose, and Tigers fans are relieved, for the Tigers probably lost, too, and thus lost no ground. A two-game set in Cleveland this past week ended, predictably, in a 1-1 draw. Tied going in, tied going out. Nobody is seizing control.

The Tigers went into Yankee Stadium, which, if you listen to the media, might as well add “The Hostile Environment of” in front of its name on the building. Tigers announcers Mario Impemba and Rod Allen, who are actually OK in my book, used that term innumerable times in the first two games of the four-game series. The heralded rookie outfielder Cameron Maybin was summoned all the way from Double A ball just in time to make his MLB debut on Friday night.
“To come here, for your first big league game, and play in this hostile environment … ,” Allen said of Maybin. I don’t remember the rest of the sentence.

The Tigers grand-slammed their way to victory Thursday night. The Indians were idle. The Tigers moved a sliver ahead, by one-half game. Friday night, the Tigers lost. The Indians, no longer idle, beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays – as well they should. The Indians now hold that sliver of a lead. Only in divisional races in sports can we identify something as being worth one-half game. You gotta love math. Which half, though?

It’s likely to be this close the rest of the way; Indians winning a couple, then losing a couple. Tigers doing the same. Countless nights when both teams lose. Back and forth it will go, and at times we will wonder what is so awful about winning the AL Central that causes the Tigers and Indians to treat it so disrespectfully.

Ah, then there’s the Wild Card. This Tigers series in the Bronx is being bantied about as being big because the Yankees – making another of their classic second half charges – are now leading the second and third place teams in the league for the consolation Wild Card playoff spot. The Tigers, last season, let a sure-thing division crown slip through their fingers, settling for being Kings of the Second Place Finishers – a.k.a. the Wild Card. Of course, they played that card all the way to the World Series. Some, like Pudge Rodriguez’s 2003 Florida Marlins, have played that Wild Card all the way to a world championship. Still doesn’t make it right, though.

There was no Second Place Crown in 1965, which might have gotten to Giants pitcher Marichal, he of our lead sentence. Angered by a ball thrown back to the pitcher by Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro – a ball that Marichal, the batter, thought nicked his ear – Marichal took his bat and slammed it down onto Roseboro’s skull. Several times. Battered and with blood running down his chest protector, a dazed Roseboro was aided by, of all people, Giants outfielder Willie Mays, who pulled the Dodgers catcher out of harm’s way. The ’65 Dodgers-Giants race was another in a series of classic season-long duels between the two bitter rivals. But Marichal’s violent act was certainly the most (in)famous incident of all those sprints to the finish line.


Marichal (far left) lets the pennant race heat get to him

Mauch, managing the Phillies in 1964, panicked when his team started to fritter away a six-game lead with 12 to play. He over-relied on his two ace starters, Jim Bunning and Chris Short, sometimes pitching them on two days rest. The Phillies lost 10 in a row, and by the time they won again, they had been eliminated from contention. The Phillies, as a franchise, reached the 10,000 loss mark this summer. They’re the first pro sports franchise to lose that many games. But 9,990 of those losses, combined, weren’t as painful as the ten suffered, in a row, late in the ’64 season.

In ’67, the Tigers, Red Sox, Twins, and White Sox engaged in a wild four-team race for much of the summer. It came down to the final weekend. The Tigers were forced to play doubleheaders on both Saturday and Sunday, due to earlier rainouts. If they could somehow win all four games, they’d be pennant winners, outright. Three-of-four would force a playoff between themselves and the Red Sox. But the Tigers could only manage to beat the visiting California Angels twice, surrendering the pennant to the Red Sox. McAuliffe, who hadn’t hit into a double play all season, accounted for the final two outs by grounding into one.

Five years later, the Tigers got back at the Red Sox, taking two of three from them at Tiger Stadium in the final weekend to win the AL East in the strike-shortened ’72 campaign. That’s when they dunked Martin in the icy whirlpool.

These were, like so many others not mentioned here, terrific races, in their own way. But each had one thing in common: you had to finish in first place to play on in October. How much of their luster would have been cut had finishing in second place also meant a trip to the postseason? They’d be not so wild, I would think.

July Forth

In MLB, playoffs, Tigers on July 1, 2007 at 6:07 pm

It’s part of baseball’s wonderful congruity.

The season, all 162 games of it, is neatly divvied up into six full months: April to September, with October reserved for the three tiers of playoffs. An All-Star game placed almost squarely in the middle, a genuine halfway mark.

And Independence Day close enough to that halfway point. July 4th – George Steinbrenner’s birthday, as well. Insert your own joke.

It’s another of baseball’s many adages that says the teams that are leading their divisions on July 4th are the ones that are likely to be leading them when the curtain falls after game #162. It should be noted that what baseball calls adages, some folks call urban legends. Or myths.

Thanks to the most wonderful website on the planet Earth, Retrosheet.org, I did a little research. And I found myth and truth to both be attributed to the July 4th litmus test.

Starting with 1940, the Tigers have won league and/or divisional titles seven times (1940, 1945, 1968, 1972, 1984, 1987, and 2006). It was a simple matter to look up the July 4th standings for each season.

1940. The Tigers find themselves in second place, a game behind the Cleveland Indians. And the two teams would trade first place all summer, before the Tigers nipped the Tribe at the end by one game.

1945. The Tigers reside in first place on the 4th, three-and-a-half games in front of the vaunted Yankees. They capture the flag by 1 ½ games over the Washington Senators.

1968. There’s no catching Mayo Smith’s boys. A bulging 8 ½ game lead over Cleveland. They roll to the pennant.

1972. A tight, four-team race at the end. On July 4, the Tigers are in second place, one game behind Baltimore. At the end, the Tigers finish one-half game in front of Boston, thanks to a games-played disparity caused by the players’ strike in spring training.

1984. Bless You Boys! A 35-5 start, and the Tigers are a comfy seven games in front of Toronto on the 4th. They win the division by a whopping 15 games.

1987. The team that came back from an 11-19 start. On the 4th the Tigers are in third place, six games behind New York, and Toronto a game ahead of them in second place. The Tigers erase a 3 ½ game deficit in the season’s final week to win the division by two games.

2006. The improbable season finds the Tigers in first place on Independence Day, 1 ½ games ahead of Chicago. The Minnesota Twins are nine games behind. The Twins win the division on the season’s final day. But the Tigers grab the life preserver, a.k.a. the Wild Card.

The final tally? Of the seven flag seasons, four times the Tigers were in first place on the 4th. Twice they were in second. Once they were in third. Four of seven – good enough to win a playoff series, but not good enough to prove the adage. But mediocre enough to lend it myth-like status.

More research would have dug up how many times the Tigers were in first place on July 4, but failed to win the enchilada. More proof against the adage.

In 2007, the Tigers find themselves in what should be a whale of a battle to the wire. The pesky Indians and the ever-dangerous Twins will most likely join the Detroiters in a three-team volley that might have us talking about the “Great Race of 2007” for years. There are still old-timers who would corner you and yap about the four-team mad rush to the AL pennant in 1967. The Tigers lost out to the Red Sox on the final two outs of the season, thanks to Dick McAuliffe’s only grounding-into-double play all season, against the Angels. (The Tigers were in third place on the 4th that year, 3 ½ games behind first-place Chicago, another adage buster).

Friday night, the Twins spanked Justin Verlander and the Tigers all over Comerica Park, 11-1. It was a demolition usually reserved for the Tigers’ opponents. And it served notice – and a ghastly reminder of 2006 – that the Twins are fully expected to be involved in the party until the wee hours of October.

The Tigers might be in first place this July 4th. Or they might not. The Indians have been denizens of first place this season, forging a 4 ½ game lead on June 1. Then the Tigers whittled it down to two games, then one – then they wrestled the lead away from Cleveland like a bully. The Tigers edged ahead by two games. The Indians, in two quick nights last week, caught them. It’s marvelous baseball theater, and it will be here for an extended run. Enjoy it.

I’m not sure what prompted the baseball folks to target July 4th as some sort of watershed moment in any given season. But they did. And for decades, the leader at the “Independence Day Turn” has been foolishly pre-crowned as victor. Yet still the adage lives, though left staggered year after year.

The team that leads the division on the Fourth of July will most likely be the team left standing at the end of the season.

Or something like that.

Back to Steinbrenner. His Yankees, on the boss’s birthday in 1978, were nine games behind the Red Sox. A month prior, the deficit was 14 games. But at the end of the season, the Red Sox were not the team left standing. They were slumped in defeat, losers of a one-game playoff for the division. To the Yankees. Gag.

If the Tigers are in first place come this July 4th, we’ll be happy, because of the adage. If they’re not, we’ll dismiss it as so much bunk. A myth. A baseballian urban legend.

So we cannot be wrong. Only the standings can be, at the end.

If The Cavs Are The East’s Best, Then Revoke The Conference’s License

In NBA, playoffs on June 15, 2007 at 4:05 pm

Am I the only one who can’t believe that the Pistons lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers FOUR times?

Goodness gracious.

The Cavaliers surely put on one of the most embarrassing displays in recent NBA Finals history in getting swept by the San Antonio “Dynasty” Spurs. And when I say “recent”, I mean “ever.”

I’ll say it again: the Pistons would NOT have taken down the Spurs, the NBA Team of the 21st Century. But sheesh — they would have certainly done the Eastern Conference prouder than the Cavs. If the East torch has been passed, as I suggested it had been a couple weeks ago, and if the Cavaliers are the best the Eastern Conference has to offer, then that conference deserves every bit of criticism and disrespect that it gets.

Sometime in the third quarter last night, the Cavs managed a one-point lead after a mini-flurry. It was their first second half lead in the entire series. That’s disgraceful, at that level of basketball.

Where was Boobie Gibson and his annoying three-pointers? Where was Donyell Marshall from the corner? Where was Zydrunas Ilgauskas’s 15-foot jumper? Where was Drew Gooden? And where was LeBron James, most of all?

The only thing that carried over for the Cavs from the Pistons series was the flopper Anderson Varejao, who spends so much time on his back on the basketball floor that you might as well emblazon his chest with the Quicken Loans Arena logo. Varejao had one last flop in the tank when he drew an undeserved offensive foul on Tim Duncan in the fourth quarter, when Cleveland was still threatening to make it a game.

But Varejao’s theatrics weren’t nearly enough to make the Cavaliers competitive in one of the most lopsided Finals they’ve played since Dr. James Naismith nailed a peach basket up for his incorrigible gym students.

The more I watched these Finals — and I couldn’t stomach very much, believe me — the angrier I got. I wasn’t sure if I was mad at the Pistons, or the Cavs, or the world. All I know is, the Pistons lost four times to those shmucks, and they too should feel embarrassed.

The East could have fed the Spurs the Atlanta Hawks and I don’t know if the end result would have been all that much different. Brutal.

If losing in a Finals is supposed to be a learning experience and a prep for bigger and better things in the near future, then this series was to the Cavs what molecular biology would be to a kindergartener. I saw nothing on the floor that suggested James’s team was merely cutting its Finals teeth, readying itself for a successful encore next season, or the year after. Instead I saw a basketball team stuck in the headlights of a freight train. They were Bobby Brady on that episode of the “Brady Bunch” when he was struck mute during a game show appearance.

The San Antonio Spurs are NBA champs and all hail them. They are truly the class of the league. It’s just a shame that the Wizards, Nets, and Pistons let such impostors as the Cavaliers overtake them to represent the East.

Shameful.

Hey, Hey … Hockeytown?

In NHL, playoffs, Stanley Cup on June 10, 2007 at 5:18 am

The Stanley Cup is gone – absconded and spirited away for another year, and again it’s been shanghaied by a warm weather city unworthy of ownership.

Or so says Alan Meyer.

My friend Alan isn’t a native Detroiter. He isn’t a denizen of Hockeytown – that self-proclaimed title Detroit fans have given their city, as undisputed reverends of Canada’s game. I’d dearly love to see the reactions of the folks of Montreal whenever Detroit is referred to by that branding. But I digress.

Alan is an old college friend who re-established communications with me, out of the clear blue, last year. Seems that writing for magazines and on the Internet will occasionally make one’s name auspicious.

Alan’s not a Detroiter, but he’s got a lot of Midwest about him. He’s an Ohio guy, actually – and I knew that when I met him at Eastern Michigan University, back when the school’s teams were called Hurons. I assure you that I didn’t hold his Ohio nativeness against him. Still don’t.

But he’s in California now, work dragging him to the left coast. And he rocketed an e-mail to me last week less than 24 hours after the Anaheim Ducks captured their first Stanley Cup, disposing of the Senators in five games. The Sens play in Ottawa, a more Cup-worthy city, according to Mr. Meyer.

“It’s a shame that Ottawa or cities like Detroit or Montreal or Toronto – great hockey towns – didn’t win,” Alan wrote.

Forget the cities. This year the Cup was won by a bunch of Ducks. Last year it was a group of Hurricanes. The Cup before that, Lightning struck.

No Red Wings. No Rangers. No Canadiens. No Maple Leafs. Not even any Flyers, Oilers, Flames, or Islanders. These were once the keepers of the Cup. The Canadiens were the biggest and most consistent offender. They played keep away with the trophy throughout most of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. They won four in a row from 1976 to ’79, then the New York Islanders followed that up with four straight of their own from 1980 to ’83. Not to be outdone, it was then the Edmonton Oilers’ turn to reign supreme. They captured five Cups in the seven years between 1984 and 1990.

Montreal. Long Island. Edmonton.

Cup-worthy, all of them. Why? Well, occasionally the outdoor temperature is known to dip near or below that of the ice on which the game is played, for starters. In the Cup-worthy cities, fans hustle into the arena to warm up. In non-Cup-worthy cities, fans hustle into the arena to cool off.

But there was more from Alan than just tears of empathy for the Cup-worthy towns. And it was the most sobering point of all.

“The (Cup) victory really does nothing for the general population of Anaheim or Orange County in general,” Alan huffed. “Outside of the 17,372 people at the final game, there probably aren’t too many people here who really give a *bleep bleep* about winning the Cup. It’s really unfortunate.”

So there you have it – intelligence from the Pacific coast. The Stanley Cup has again been awarded to a city whose citizens wouldn’t recognize it if they tripped over it.


Yeah, but how will it play OUTSIDE the arena, Scott?

This is what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wants, though. To him, the winning of Cups in Tampa, Raleigh, and Anaheim is validation of his Johnny Appleseed method of marketing: plant franchise seeds where they have no business operating, and declare it a success if the teams win Cups – even if 90% of the general populace of those metropolitan areas don’t know a Stanley Cup from a coffee cup.

“For hockey’s sake,” Alan opined, “at least here in California, the only hope is that maybe this Stanley Cup victory will plant a seed of increase in popularity of the sport. But I really doubt it, though. Professional sports here are really a diversion to a way of life.”

The day that winning an NHL championship becomes a “diversion” in Detroit or Montreal is the day before Armageddon hits.

But that’s what it is to southern Californians, according to my Midwest-at-heart pal Alan.

“The departure of the (NFL’s) Rams and the difficulty in obtaining a replacement franchise” is the bi-product of the notoriously laid-back attitude of sports fans near the beach, Alan says. “For the most part, the baseball stadiums here empty out beginning in the seventh inning.”

One of those stadiums, it should be pointed out, houses the Dodgers – one of baseball’s most storied franchises. And they can’t keep the interest of the paying customers till the last out is recorded? Yet, say hello to the new bearers of your Stanley Cup for the next 12 months, at least.
Things were in proper order until 1999, when the relocated Stars of Dallas won the first Cup for any city south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Any hopes that that Cup was an anomaly have been shattered by the recent captures by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, and now Anaheim Ducks.

Tampa is a beach town, too. They have those “let’s go to the game and cool off” fans. Carolina is tobacco country, and basketball rules the sporting landscape – along with NASCAR. Anaheim is Disneyland and a city full of late arrivers and early departers. These balmy areas have won the last three Stanley Cups, and if you think such victories have done wonders for hockey popularity in those towns, then you’re Gary Bettman’s kind of person – a dum-dum.

But the games are played on the ice, not according to geographic location of the combatants. Detroit, Montreal, Toronto and the rest are Cup-less this summer because their teams weren’t good enough to get the job done, plain and simple. And now look what’s happened. Another shanghaied Cup.

“In Detroit, for most fans,” Alan concluded, “professional sports ARE a way of life.”

Told ya – not bad for an Ohioan.

The NBA Finals? Who Needs ‘Em — When Failure Is Guaransheed?

In NBA, Pistons, playoffs on June 8, 2007 at 3:35 pm

OK, Pistons fans — did you REALLY want a piece of the San Antonio Spurs?

Didn’t think so.

I think the grief over not making it to the NBA Finals isn’t so much that there’s a groundswell of opinion that the Pistons could have taken the Spurs out. Rather, it’s more of an “if the Spurs are gonna kick someone’s ass in the Finals, then it’d better be OURS” kind of a thing.

Seriously — Timmy Duncan’s team is the class of the NBA, the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding. They are, in the 21st century, what the Bulls and Lakers and Celtics were during various times in the 20th.

Last night the Spurs put a licking on the Cleveland Cavaliers that was hardly surprising. The Spurs are what the Pistons used to be, only better. It would be a minor miracle if the pesky Cavs can do much more than shove the series to five games.

LeBron James was harrassed into a 4-for-16 shooting night, and this time there wasn’t enough Boobie Gibson or Drew Gooden or Zadrunas Ilgauskas to save the day. And there won’t be, for the Cavs will find that the Spurs’ defenders make the Pistons look like San Antonio Lite.

To San Antonio’s credit, they’re saying all the right things about James and his potential to go off at any moment, like an un-defused time bomb. And James might, before the series is done sometime next week, break out for 30 points or so. But mostly the young King will be getting on-the-job training about what the NBA Finals are all about. And it will make him stronger, and better, in the long run. Not a pleasant thought for the rest of the NBA East.

In Game 1, Tony Parker had 27 points. If that comes close to happening again, forget what I said about the series being extended beyond four games. In fact, I’d be tempted to pick a four-game sweep in three matches — if that were possible.

No, the Pistons wouldn’t have had much of a prayer against the Spurs. Perhaps they could have been a better match for the Spurs than Cleveland will be — mainly because of experience and the revenge factor. But the Pistons would have needed seven games to eliminate the Cavs, and a rested San Antonio club would have loomed — on the road — a few nights later.

The way I figure it, the only thing the Pistons missed out on by not doing away with the Cavs was the ignominy of losing to the Spurs twice in three seasons for the whole enchilada. And we’d still be wringing our hands over Joe Dumars’ offseason moves.

Gives us one more week with the Tigers, as far as I’m concerned.

The King And HIS Court

In NBA, Pistons, playoffs on June 1, 2007 at 12:48 pm

Another playoff night, another chance for an oldtimer to recall the days of yore.

It was inevitable, to me, that my mind should wander to Eddie Feigner as I watched LeBron James put the Cleveland Cavaliers on his broadening shoulders, leading them to a double-overtime victory in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. And when I say leading them to victory, I mean it how tomatoes are the leading ingredient in ketchup.

The vinegar had fouled out, one by one, but the juicy LeBron tomato was still plump and robust. By now you’ve heard the numbers — Marv Albert made sure of that: 29 of the last 30 Cav points scored, including the final 25 (and the last 11 field goals). No Cleveland player had managed to put the ball into the bucket since there was about eight minutes left — in regulation, some 18 minutes before the game ended.

So who the heck is Eddie Feigner and why is he relevant this morning?

Feigner actually just passed away a couple of months ago. He led The King and His Court, a barnstorming softball team that consisted of pitcher Feigner and a handful of fielders, placed strategically across the diamond and outfield. But they were hardly necessary, because Feigner would pretty much strike everyone out. And he’d do it from second base, blindfolded, between his legs, you name it. He’d strike out major league ballplayers in exhibitions — easily.

The basketballer James, nicknamed The King, owned the court last night. He didn’t need his fouled out comrades, after all. One really can beat five in the NBA — if the game remains close and comes down to single possessions. And, if that one is unconscious and “in a zone,” as Pistons coach Flip Saunders said afterward with chilling understating.

The Cavaliers are poised to win this series and leap into the NBA Finals because the Pistons once again lost their mojo at the most crucial of times. Their killer instinct, which has vanished long ago, was a mere memory as they turned the ball over several times late in regulation, after they’d gone on a 10-0 run to forge an 88-81 lead. Let it now be said, and with more than a hint of truth: the old Pistons wouldn’t have blown such an opportunity. They wouldn’t have let their feet off the Cavaliers’ throats. And they’d be up, 3-2, going to Cleveland. And they’d end the series there.


This is MY time!!

But here’s the rub: these AREN’T the old Pistons. Haven’t been for quite some time. And nobody wanted to admit that, but now there’s no denying it. The Cavaliers are the new beasts of the East now — perhaps a year earlier than most of us thought. I’m still not sold on them being much more than a titular emperor wearing the clothes, but there you have it. Frankly, neither of these East survivors will be a worthy opponent for the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals. And that’s no great crime, for the Spurs are the best team of this era — the Lakers and Bulls of modern times.

It’s highly unlikely, in my mind, that the Pistons can do anything more than maybe give the Cavaliers a good game for 40 minutes or so tomorrow night, falling with a thud after such high hopes. They’ll talk bravely (they already are) of “being here before” and of all their experience and how they never make it easy on themselves and all that rot.

It will, unfortunately, be all talk. The wistful blustering of a former champion who, for whatever reason, has lost its magic. Maybe the legs and the bodies and the shooting eyes aren’t keeping up with the calendar. The Pistons have played an awful lot of basketball over the years.

Last year, when the Cavs won three straight over the Pistons in the conference semifinals, Antonio McDyess sat numb on the bench, and left the Palace without taking off his uniform. He was, at the time, seeing his championship dreams slipping away.

McDyess was ejected late in the first quarter (a horrible call, by the way). He probably had his uniform off well before the game ended this time. But the feelings inside were no doubt the same — and maybe worse. He’s a year older now, too — and wasn’t around for the party in 2004.

The King owned his court last night. It’s only a matter of time before he owns the league’s.

Who Said Road To Finals Would/Should Be Easy?

In NBA, Pistons, playoffs on May 31, 2007 at 1:30 pm

It may not be 20 years ago to the day, but it’s 20 years ago to the moment.

Eastern Conference Finals. Knotted at two games apiece. Game 5 slated for the hostile home of the more experienced (read: older), favored team whose appearances in the NBA’s Final Four are commonplace. And that experienced team is poised to lock horns with a familiar foe in the NBA’s Final Two.

Sound familiar? It should, because that was the scenario in 1987 when the Pistons met the Celtics in the creaky old Boston Garden for Game 5 of their East final. The Celtics had held service in Games 1 and 2, and the Pistons did the same in Games 3 and 4. Just like this year’s tussle with the Cavaliers. Game 5 in Boston was — since it cannot possibly be written otherwise — pivotal.

The Pistons stayed with the Celtics the entire game. So much so, that they found themselves with a one-point lead — and the ball — with under ten seconds to play.

Anyone want to tell me what happened next? Anyone?

Yeah — THIS.

Then the Pistons, despite that slug in the gut, recovered to win Game 6 at the Silverdome, and gave the Celtics all they could handle again in Game 7. It was a tight affair in the Garden. Then Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson butted heads, knocking both players out of the game, and that pretty much snuffed out the Pistons’ hopes.

Such ghoulish history might not be pleasant reading today, for the comparisons between today’s Cavs and Pistons and 1987’s Pistons and Celtics might be a little too eery for comfort.

Drew Sharp, in today’s Freep, has an opinion piece titled, “There’s No Excuse For Losing to Cavaliers.” Mitch Albom, in the Chicago series, prattled on about how the Pistons were wasting energy against an inferior opponent. Sharp, too, acts as if the Pistons are playing chopped liver in this Cleveland series. Mike Stone, yesterday on the radio, whined that the Pistons of 2004 would never have let Cavs rookie Daniel Gibson score 21 points, as he did in Game 4. Yet it was the ’04 Pistons who let benchwarmers Brian Scalabrine (Nets) and Luke Walton (Lakers) go off in crucial playoff games.

Then, in the next sentence, the very same Chicken Littles will opine that nobody expects perfection, when all they seem to be doing is strongly hinting as such.

Here are the facts: the Pistons are 10-4 in the postseason, and are in a best-of-three with the Cavs, with two games in Detroit. No time for slitting throats or jumping off bridges — or bandwagons. The fact that they dared not to sweep every series can be overlooked, can’t it?

Having said all that, the Pistons will be probably lose in the NBA Finals against the Spurs. I felt the same way about the Lakers in ’04, but had I known then what I ended up knowing — that the Lakers were an unraveling, aging bunch, I might have picked the Pistons. The Spurs are neither unraveling nor aging — at least not to the point of creating a serious erosion of their skills. Remember Gary Payton and Karl Malone wheezing against the Pistons in the 2004 Finals?

So this is probably it for the Pistons — Eastern Conference champions. It’s as far as I thought they’d go. They will be significant underdogs against the Spurs — as should any team in the modern era, if they could return to the court during their prime and take on Tim Duncan and Company. The Spurs are the class of the league. Losing to them will not be dishonorable at all.

But as much as losing to the Cavs would be an upset, it wouldn’t be inexcusable, as Sharp suggests. The ’87 Pistons were a steal and a head butt away from facing the Lakers in the Finals. It can be said that the Cavaliers aren’t all that far separated from the Pistons, either. They aren’t anyone’s dregs.

The 1989 Pistons went 15-2 in the postseason. The ’90 version went 15-5. The 2004 champions were 16-7. The ’89 team was an anomaly; most champs lose a few along the way. The Pistons shouldn’t listen to the hand-wringers who would have them go 12-0 in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Not that they do. Thank goodness.

Add Gibson To List Of Unlikely Playoff Villains

In NBA, Pistons, playoffs on May 30, 2007 at 4:19 am

The names are sure to draw shivers and cold sweat from die-hard Pistons fans.

Bernard King. Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson. Brian Scalabrine. Luke Walton.

And now, a new playoff villain: Daniel Gibson.

Maybe the above group should be categorized. For certainly King, who beat the Pistons by himself in a first round best-of-five series in 1984, and Bird and Johnson (The Steal in 1987) were genuine NBA stars who ate plenty of people’s lunch in their illustrious careers. Perhaps it’s unfair to them to place them in the same, unfiltered company as Scalabrine and Walton and Gibson.

Scalabrine, surely you recall, went berserk in Game 5 of the East semifinals at the Palace in 2004. He hit triples from all over the court, and it’s not an overstatement to say that he alone willed the Nets to victory that night, in overtime.

Walton had his 15 minutes of fame in Game 2 of the ’04 NBA Finals, when he was all over the court, offensively and defensively, making a nuisance of himself — and helping to spur the Lakers to the “W.”

The Scalabrine/Walton nightmares are only tolerable because the Pistons ended up on top in both of those series. It should also be noted that there hasn’t been any proof that either player has had nearly as good of a game since, and we’re talking three years ago. Each of them walked out of anonymity and into the black hat and twirling mustache of playoff bad guy. But both of their moments were fleeting, thank goodness.

Gibson, the Cleveland Cavaliers whirling dervish rookie point guard, terrorized the Pistons last night, and was a huge reason why the Eastern Finals are now knotted, 2-2. He hit three-pointers. He knocked balls out of Piston hands. He drew charges. He distributed the ball nicely. He was deadeye accurate on free throws. And he did it all with a grin curling his lips and an occasional chest-pump. He played with an annoyingly high level of confidence that belies his youth and inexperience.

Oh, there was Drew Gooden, too. And Zadrunas Ilgauskas. And, of course, LeBron James. The four of them — these three plus Gibson — basically outplayed the Pistons’ top four guys, and made the crucial plays down the stretch. They deserved the win, no question.

Watching Gibson do his thing, I determined that he would NOT go off like that in Detroit in Game 5. Further, I submit that the Pistons will spank these unruly Cavs and send them to bed without dinner, to the tune of a 10-to-15-point margin of victory.

Enough of these Cavs already. Enough of the inability of the Pistons to get their big men and their guards all playing well on the same night. Enough.

Ahh, but it will be enough, at least for the next game. The Cavaliers have been awful in Detroit and I see no reason why that trend needs to change now. It’s a whole lot easier to have fun and smile and chest pump when the arena’s denizens are all behind you.

The Pistons are still in good shape; how can you NOT be when the series is a best-of-three with two in your building?

But, come on, Chauncey. Loosen up. Chris Webber, get involved. Antonio McDyess, please come back. Make Daniel Gibson have something else in common with Brian Scalabrine and Luke Walton: they each sucked after their 15 minutes were up.

THEN we’ll see if Gibson grins.

Slow-To-Be-Interested Pistons Get Bumped In Game 3

In NBA, Pistons, playoffs on May 28, 2007 at 12:39 pm

On this Memorial Day, and with the Pistons tinkering along in the NBA’s Final Four, a.k.a. the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s appropriate to take time to honor those who have given their basketball lives for the franchise.

Ahh, screw that. Actually, I’m thinking of two guys who proved memorable, but in a far less honorable way. But they’re relevant to my opinion.

When Marvin “Bad News” Barnes toiled for the Pistons (1976-77), there would be some occasional concern as to whether he would make it to practice, or downtown to Cobo Arena in time for the game that evening. Then there was some debate whether, once he got into the ballgame, he would be effective or sleepwalk on the court.

William Bedford (a Piston from ’87 to ’92), seven feet of babysitting fun, had his own issues, too. Some of those issues ended up snorted into his nose. Anyhow, because of his quirky ways — and when I say quirky I mean self-destructive — he earned a clever nickname from Isiah Thomas, a play on Bedford’s name. “Willy B,” Isiah called him. As in, “Willy B here? Willy B late? Willy B good?”

Sometimes coach Herb Brown, urged by the chants from the Cobo crowd, would insert Barnes into the game and he’d turn the place on, canning jumpers and grabbing rebounds, starting a Kevin Porter-led fast break. Fun times.

Bedford, when the spirit moved him, would occasionally be effective, too. He’d block a shot, make a post move for a dunk, and in a flash he would show why GM Jack McCloskey was so fascinated by his tall frame and high ceiling. Fun times, as well — but oh, so fleeting.

I’m reminded of Barnes and Bedford — two coach-killer B’s — when I see today’s Pistons wrestle with themselves in these NBA playoffs.

For reasons that they will perhaps take to their graves, these Pistons don’t always seem too interested when the introductions are over with and the fire has been shot off by the cannons behind the backboards and the referee blows his whistle and tosses the ball into the air at center court. They treat the first quarter, and indeed sometimes the second and even, from time-to-time, most of the third, as a grade school child treats school mornings.

It happened yet again last night, as the Cleveland Cavaliers, no doubt pumped by their home crowd and the prospects of an 0-3 deficit, raced out of the gate in the opening minutes while the Pistons wiped their eyes and asked for five more minutes under the covers.

It was 16-9 before the Pistons, as Red Wings analyst Mickey Redmond would say, “Got ‘er goin.'” They would recover to take a 24-22 lead, and the game was nip-and-tuck from that point on.

The Pistons talk with their chests puffed out about how they “know how to win” in the closing minutes of games, and that they’ve “been through all this before.” But doesn’t knowing how to win also include knowing how to take games just as seriously in the opening minutes — heck, the opening 24 minutes, for gosh sakes — as you take them in what everyone likes to call “crunch time”?

You’ve heard all the quotes before — the ones about the other team coming out with more energy, and with more of a sense of urgency, after the opening tip. Pistons coach Flip Saunders called the end of Game 2 “Groundhog Day,” for its similarities to the end of Game 1. But if there’s a continued repeat about the Pistons, a la the Bill Murray movie about a man who relives the same day over and over, it’s the beginning of games, not the ends of them.

It’s been said derisively about the NBA that you only really have to watch the last two minutes of an NBA game to find out what happened. I have said the same thing — about movies on Lifetime. Anyhow, it seems as if the Pistons themselves subscribe to this “last two minutes” theory, but with a twist. They act as if they only have to bear down for those final 120 seconds.

If they’re not careful, the Pistons will still be hitting the snooze button while the Cavs are preparing for San Antonio or Utah.

"Groundhog Day"? Naah — Just An Alternate Ending

In NBA, Pistons, playoffs on May 25, 2007 at 12:39 pm

Pistons coach Flip Saunders called it “Groundhog Day,” referring to the movie where Bill Murray relives the same day over and over again. Saunders thought the comparison apt as he described the eery similarities of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, which his team won, 79-76 — and Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, which his team won, 79-76.

Nice try, Flip — but I prefer to think of the two games as being similar to a movie’s DVD that has special features, including an alternate ending.

You didn’t like the ending of Game 1, when Cleveland’s LeBron James passed the ball to Donyell Marshall for a potential game-winning three-pointer? Well, check out last night’s alternate ending — the one where James keeps the ball (Marshall was still lurking in the corner, a la Game 1) instead of kicking it out.

Happily for the Pistons, both endings resulted in them riding off into the sunset.

Now as for Cavaliers’ coach Mike Brown blowing out an aorta after the no-call on James during his final move to the basket: chill — there was no foul. I’m serious. I tried to find one, believe me. But the contact that occurred was nothing more than the usual incidental stuff that happens in an NBA playoff game in the paint. Now having said that, it might have been a foul in Cleveland — but it would have been the wrong call. Brown’s real outrage should be at Larry Hughes, who found a gift laid at his feet when Rasheed Wallace couldn’t corral the rebound of James’s shot, leaving Hughes with a wide-open 12-footer. His shot wasn’t even close to going in.

Now a word about Wallace. It was so cathartic to hear what he said about Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao’s flopping. The most egregious of these unwarranted collapses onto the floor came late, when Wallace grabbed a pass and made a rather wild, turnaround jumper that put the Pistons up, 77-76. As Wallace took the pass, Varejao flew to the floor as if he’d stepped on a land mine.

After the game, Wallace bristled when it was suggested that he was having “battles” with Varejao up and down the court.

“That kid is too young to be having battles,” Sheed said. “That flopping isn’t playing defense. The league should make that flopping a technical foul next season. They’ve done a lot to give me technical fouls. I’m just glad we had veteran officials who could [recognize the flopping.]”

Hear, hear!

Of course, Brown had a hissy fit over that Wallace play/shot, and it happened right in front of him. So if he got that one wrong — which he did — then no wonder he was wrong about the LeBron no-call, which was some 70 feet away from him.

There has been the usual hand-wringing about the Pistons after these first two games against Cleveland. But unlike so many other occasions, this time the hand-wringing might be warranted. You could even say the Pistons hold a 2-0 lead yet trail the series.

“First one to 80 is going to win, it looks like,” Saunders said.

Let’s hope the Pistons don’t find another alternate ending on that DVD. Time to rent another movie.

May I suggest “Waiting to Exhale”?