• 52°

Pistons can#039;t blame officials for this loss

SAN ANTONIO - So how does anyone blame the officiating for this abomination?

No excuse du jour can justify the Detroit Pistons' meek resistance to the San Antonio Spurs, the challengers to their throne. Through two games in the NBA Finals, the defending champions have been outworked and outclassed.

They have been reduced to a punch line. The image of Ben and Rasheed Wallace stepping off the team bus Sunday with heavyweight championship belts draped across their shoulders inspires more mocking than motivation.

The title is lost unless the Pistons find their identity - and pretty darn fast.

If they were as tenacious in their defensive effort as they were in chewing referee Danny Crawford's ear, they might not be teetering at the precipice of one of the most embarrassing abdications of the crown we've ever seen.

The ultimate role team is having difficulty adjusting to an unfamiliar role - road kill.

The Pistons suffered a 34-16 disparity in free-throw attempts Sunday night in their 97-76 loss in Game 2, and that will only fuel the fury of those looking for blame outside of the Pistons themselves.

But the harsh truth is that Manu Ginobili is killing Tayshaun Prince. The harsh truth is that Ben Wallace hasn't played worth a bucket of used Gatorade in the last five games. The harsh truth is that regardless of any difficulties with the officiating, the Pistons have no alternative but to find some way to play through the frustration.

"We've got to do a better job of maintaining our poise,'' a solemn Joe Dumars said afterward.

Rarely has a defending champion so easily unraveled emotionally when it thought outside forces weren't going in its favor. The Pistons had their crutches out early in the first quarter when they got some quick whistles.

Save it.

We're done listening.

Larry Brown didn't want to talk about it afterward.

"Next question,'' he said when asked about his team's crumbling concentration because of problems with the officiating.

The Pistons can't accept the obvious: They finally have come across an opponent that plays "Deeeee-troit bas-ket-balllll'' better than they do.

They're beyond trouble, trailing the Spurs, 0-2, because they must find a way to stop beating themselves before they can figure out how to beat San Antonio.

"We had better find a way to start winning some games,'' Ben Wallace said, "or we're going to spend a long summer trying to figure out what could have been or what should have been.''

They're not dead. Comebacks of this magnitude aren't impossible.

Boston did it against the Lakers in the 1969 Finals, and Portland spotted Philadelphia a 2-0 series lead in 1977 before winning the next four.

"I thought we got a little frustrated,'' Chauncey Billups said. "We cut the lead down in the fourth quarter, but then they got free throw after free throw, and that takes you out of your run.''

Where was the resistance?

Tony Parker and Ginobili roamed the paint with little fear of retribution. They found leaks in the normally solid Pistons defense, which resembled the Grand Canyon in Game 2.

The Spurs took exception to the Pistons' attitude that their ills were all self-induced. The Pistons attributed their opening-game difficulties to the demands of surviving a seven-game series against Miami and winning Game 7 on the road. They were confident the light switch that has saved them in numerous desperate moments would instantly illuminate them once again.

But the bulb might have finally gone dim.

The lack of energy at the outset Sunday night was inexcusable.

The Pistons got a total of three first-quarter points from the triumvirate of Billups, Prince and Rip Hamilton.


It didn't help that Prince and Hamilton took quick seats on the bench after picking up their second fouls.

There go those dastardly officials again. The refs have the audacity to blow their whistles when they see contact.

The Pistons needed their most aggressive effort of the season against the Spurs, but instead they strangely coasted at the start, falling behind by double digits and not drawing any closer until their modest fourth-quarter push.

When you play back on your heels, knocking you down becomes much easier.

It probably looked a little awkward when the team's president stood alongside its question mark in an elevator after the Pistons' Game 1 loss, just staring ahead and saying nothing.

When Rasheed Wallace reached his floor and walked out, Joe Dumars told him: "Shoot the ball.''

Most figured the biggest adjustment in Game 2 would be those three simple words.

But this was a systemic malfunction. The engine that occasionally sputtered, yet still roared when absolutely necessary, might finally have run out of gas.

Drew Sharp is a columnist for Knight Ridder Newspapers.