THE CONTRAST in this first-round series couldn't be more obvious: The All-Star lineup of the Pistons is aiming to reach a sixth straight Eastern Conference finals against a novice 76ers team that three months ago was headed for the lottery. So how did Detroit find itself on Sunday in danger of falling behind three games to one? "Our coaches told us that when we play too fast, we play into their hands," says Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince. "You would think we would be smart enough to slow down and see what's going on."
Down 45--31 late in the first half of Game 4, Detroit intensified its defense and launched an extended 35--11 run en route to a 93--84 win that evened the series at two games. But the Pistons will need more than a strong quarter here and there if they hope to eventually meet—and beat—the Celtics, who have established a far more consistent rhythm this season. "We can't keep exerting so much energy like this in the first round," says forward Antonio McDyess. "We can't keep going like this."
An unfortunate reward for Detroit's 59 wins—second in the NBA to Boston's 66—was a matchup against the Sixers, a younger and less skilled, but more athletic, version of the Warriors (who last year KO'd the Mavericks in the biggest upset in NBA playoff history). The Pistons' maturity was supposed to be a strength, but instead they have shown their age, and the naive Sixers were making them look as vulnerable and ineffective as they did in losing the conference finals the previous two years to the underdog Heat and Cavaliers. Not only did Philly's trapping, scrambling defense force a season-high 25 turnovers in Game 3 (Detroit averaged a league-low 11.7 during the season), but the Sixers also harassed the Pistons into missing 17 consecutive shots in the third quarter of a shocking 95--75 win.
To advance, Detroit will need better performances from point guard Chauncey Billups, who through Sunday had shot 12 for 42 from the field (28.6%) and was averaging 13.0 points and 5.3 assists. It will also have to establish its preferred slower, self-assured tempo with the kind of suffocating defense Prince was playing on forward Andre Iguodala, the Sixers' top scorer, who through four games had been held to 10.5 points on 22.4% shooting in the series. "We always put ourselves in a tough situation and have to find a way to dig ourselves out of it," says Prince, the one Piston maintaining a high level of play. (He made 19 of 21 field goals in the two games in Philadelphia.) "If we keep doing it, sooner or later we're not going to be able to get ourselves out of it."
ENERGIZED Louis Williams and the 76ers have been able to run the Pistons ragged.