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Pistons seem to be missing their mo-jo

Defending NBA champions struggling to get it in gear
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Of the many NBA franchises trying to emulate the style of play that propelled Detroit to the NBA championship last June, none is working harder to duplicate that winning formula than the Pistons themselves.

Only six months ago, the Pistons culminated a 54-28 regular season by mastering the Los Angeles Lakers' superstar-laden roster in the finals. Now, with the same core group, the club is off to a lackluster 14-12 start, is ranked 28th out of 30 teams in scoring and its once dominant defense is yielding big points to teams it once regularly locked down.

Cleveland, Utah and last-place Atlanta can boast victories of 15 points or better against the defending champions. The club has also allowed opponents to score 100 points or more four times this season, the same number the Pistons allowed in all of 2003-04.

The Washington Wizards, who are averaging 100 points per game, have a chance to become the fifth team to top the 100 mark against the champs when they meet the Pistons tonight at MCI Center.

"I hope we can beat on them a little bit before they decide to turn it up like world champions," Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas said. "Most championship teams, they always start off slow . . . before they start playing championship basketball."

Detroit won last season by melding a group of players willing to perform basketball's equivalent of stoop labor: blocking out in the post, sharing the ball and defending the basket. The club became a prototype for other teams.

"They showed everybody that you don't necessarily need marquee players to win championships," said an executive with a Western Conference franchise. "Now everybody wants to go out and get guys who want to share the basketball and work hard."

So why hasn't the Pistons' formula worked this year?

Coach Larry Brown has offered a variety of possible reasons for his club's malaise, everything from injuries to the mental anguish the club suffered following the Nov. 19 melee in Auburn Hills, Mich.

The massive brawl between Pistons fans and members of the Indiana Pacers on Detroit's home court was the country's ugliest skirmish ever between spectators and athletes. In that game, Pistons forward-center Ben Wallace shoved Pacers forward Ron Artest in retaliation for a hard foul late in the game -- a 15-point Pacers victory.

The shove ignited the brawl. For pushing Artest, Wallace was suspended for six games. He missed two earlier games following the death of one of his brothers.

Other veterans have been hampered by injuries, including Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace. Brown, the first coach to win both an NCAA and NBA title, missed six games when he underwent surgery on his hip.

Detroit also lost key reserves Mehmet Okur, Mike James and Corliss Williamson to free agency. The Pistons' reserves averaged 30 points a game over the previous three seasons but now contribute about 17 points a night.

Rick Mahorn, a member of the Pistons' 1989 championship team and a color analyst for radio broadcasts of Pistons games, suspects that the club's struggles are due in part to more intense competition.

"All these teams are bringing their A-games against Detroit," Mahorn said. "Everybody wants to beat the champs but, for teams not going anywhere this season, it could make their year to beat Detroit."

Brown has said he believes there is another reason for the team's slide. The club is playing without the same passion that fueled the championship run.

Ben Wallace disagrees. "When I look into my teammates' eyes, I still see the same passion," said the 6-foot-9 Wallace, a two-time recipient of the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award. "The guys still want to make plays, still are driven to succeed. I think we get ourselves in trouble because we're trying to do too much. We're NBA champions and sometimes we try to win the game by ourselves and forget our team concept."

For over a month, the Pistons have predicted that a recovery is just around the corner.

But has the losing begun to take a toll?

In an 89-82 loss last week to the last-place Chicago Bulls, Brown fired a verbal barrage at a referee. The league responded by fining Brown $15,000.

"Larry Brown is Larry Brown," Wallace said. "He's going to coach that way no matter what. Nobody is panicking on this team."