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Article:Pistons in better shape than a year ago

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The Eastern Conference finals are not kind to the Detroit Pistons.

Sure, there was the 2004 championship season when the Prince blocked Reggie's shot.

And, yes, a year later, they beat Miami in a thrilling seven-game series. But that postseason run ultimately ended with a loss, so nobody remembers them winning Game 7 on the road against Shaq and D-Wade.

No, when someone mentions "Eastern Conference Finals" and "Detroit Pistons" in the same sentence, the thought process begins with 2007, which, of course, is when LeBron James and a rag-tag bunch of Cavaliers won a series they had no business claiming.

And then there was 2006, when the Pistons simply refused to play with a sense of urgency despite the fact that they were taking on a Miami squad hungry for revenge.

And if you want, you can go back to 2003, when missed opportunities doomed the Pistons on their home court against the overachieving Nets

Yep, after close-gaming it by Orlando in five quick ones, the Pistons are back in the ECF for the sixth consecutive season.

Just think about that for a second, because it deserves recognition. That's right about up there with the Braves' 11 straight division titles and Duke's six Final Fours in seven seasons.

Congratulations, Pistons.

But anyone who has followed these Pistons since Rasheed Wallace was acquired mid-season in 2004 knows that one title is nothing; they should have two or three.

And, believe it or not, if Flip Saunders can't navigate his mix of veterans and rookies through to the Finals this time around, he may become temporarily jobless.

However, Saunders has reason to be optimistic, because the 2007-08 Pistons are in much better shape than they were at this time a year ago. The evidence was on display in the final two wins over Orlando.

Last season, I wouldn't have believed that Detroit could win two consecutive playoff games -- including one on the road -- without its soft-spoken leader Chauncey Billups. And I probably would have been right. That's what happens when you're too reliant on your starters.

That isn't the case this season, though, as Rodney Stuckey proved Tuesday night. The Eastern Washington rookie is completely fearless, as he demonstrated with a makeshift bank shot over the Godzilla named Dwight Howard.

"Stuck," as his teammates fondly refer to him, played a great all-around floor game, eating up 33 minutes, scoring 15 points, dishing out six assists and -- get this -- not turning the ball over once. In fact, the Pistons set a playoff record with a mere three miscues.

How else can you make up for miserable 36.1 percent shooting?

Yes, Detroit will need Billups in the next round, especially if Boston is the opponent. A series against the powerful Celtics -- at least when they're home -- sans Billups would likely spell doom for Detroit. But barring a setback, Billups will play, considering the amount of time off the Pistons now get (at least four days).

So Billups' absence was a huge blessing for the Pistons.

But Stuckey isn't the only nonstarter who is much improved from a year ago and has the trust of Flip. Jason Maxiell is now a key rotation player, whether he starts or not, and would rough up Kevin Garnett as much as he could in a Pistons-Celtics matchup. And if Maxiell starts, there is no Piston who wants a title more than Antonio McDyess.

Amid all the talk the past two years of the Pistons taking opponents lightly, McDyess has never been mentioned. That's because with each missed opportunity, his knees age a year and his opportunity wanes. Wallace, Billups and Richard Hamilton can admire their '04 rings, but McDyess arrived a year late.

Now, he's on his last legs.

Those legs, however, were huge during the fourth quarter of Detroit's Game 5 victory. McDyess was all over the court, grabbing 11 rebounds -- including six offensive boards -- and knocking down his patented midrange jumpers to the tune of 17points.

Whether he's in the starting lineup -- as was the case Tuesday -- or coming off the bench, McDyess is a valuable asset for the Pistons, a player Saunders won't forget about in the ultimate round to come.

Finally, the Pistons' bench can't be discussed without mentioning the revered 37-year-old Lindsey Hunter. He may be ancient, but he still showed that he can be a spark plug in Game 3. He's another guy whom Saunders, if he's smart, will use in the ECF -- Hunter's fitness level be damned.

But besides the team's personnel, there's another reason to think the Pistons will be prepared for the challenge the next round presents: the two potential opponents.

The modern-day Pistons' biggest problems have always been mental. Last season, they basically laughed off each loss to Cleveland, shrugging them off as if they were pieces of lint on their shoulders -- until the season had gone splat.

This year, they'd take the Cavs seriously for an obvious reason.

And there's no way Saunders, for the sake of his job, would allow James to go off like he did in the pivotal Game 5 a year ago. Double-team him, pull Bad Boy Rick Mahorn off press row ... do anything necessary. That's what would happen.

Then there's Boston, the team with the best regular-season record, the team with home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Is there any scenario in which the Pistons could take the Celtics lightly, could not be focused -- and absolutely ready to go -- for a possible memorable series?

No, not even 'Sheed would be joking around with Paul Pierce n' his boys in green after timeouts.

This, of course, doesn't guarantee that the Pistons will come out and play spectacular basketball. They'll probably have another bad shooting game like Tuesday's.

But with the right attitude and a full complement of starters and capable bench players, these Pistons appear well-equipped to get back to the Finals finally.

And maybe get McDyess that slippery championship ring.

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