Frank: ‘Why Not Us’

Pistons prepare for scorching Heat with streaks on the line both ways

Assuming Miami survives the anti-LeBron James fervor in Cleveland tonight, the Pistons’ nine-game losing streak will collide head-on with a 23-game winning streak in the cauldron of a party atmosphere on a Friday night on South Beach.

“If we’re going down there, we better have the belief that we can win,” Lawrence Frank said after Wednesday’s practice. “If not, then why go? Someone’s going to beat them. Why not us?”

In late December, before the Heat turned invincible, the Pistons beat Miami 109-99 in front of their own partying Friday night crowd. Miami was firing on about half of its cylinders at the time and went 9-7 over its next 16 games, a stretch that included a 110-88 revenge victory over the Pistons on another Friday night in Miami.

Nine days later, on Super Bowl Sunday, the fates of the two franchises’ seasons diverged. The Heat won at Toronto and haven’t lost since. The Pistons played well but lost by a point to the Lakers. But they lost far more than a game that day. Though they didn’t know it at the time, they also lost Andre Drummond, whose impact on games and value to the team had been expanding by the week.

Drummond played eight minutes the following night at New York and five minutes two nights after that against Brooklyn, struggling noticeably to run the floor, before what he called a stiff back was discovered to be a stress fracture. While Miami has gone 23-0 since that day, the Pistons have gone 5-16. They briefly treaded water without Drummond, going 4-4, but they’re 1-12 over their last 13 games as defensive breakdowns have compounded.

Frank didn’t go from student manager at Indiana to NBA head coach at age 33 by not believing in the power of hard work, so don’t kid yourself: When he asks “why not us?,” he means it.

“If you allow a losing streak to define you, shame on us,” he said. “The only way you’re going to get out of it is, the magic is always in the work. Especially now that we’ve played 69 games. We started the season 0-8 and we were horrible defensively. Then you look, up to game 49” – and let the record show that was the first game after Drummond suffered the back injury on Super Bowl Sunday – “we were doing a very good job defensively, even the All-Star break, we were still doing really good things, and since that time …”

He didn’t finish that thought before going on to the next one, but the Pistons have surrendered 100 or more points in 11 of 15 games since the break and suffered their four worst defeats of the season, all by more than 30 points.

“When you’ve played 69 games, there’s enough evidence that you’re capable of doing it,” he said. “It’s not like it’s Nov. 15 and you’re trying to sell a prayer. We’ve shown we can do it. We just have to do it. So it’s either we can’t or we won’t and I know we can.”

There’s knowing you can and then there’s knowing you will, which is the trait Miami oozes these days. The Heat were down 13 in the fourth quarter at Boston in its most recent game and … whoosh!

“They have great trust in each other,” Frank said. “The way that ball moves from one player to the next, very, very impressive. Defensively, they’ve always been top shelf. They combine great athleticism, effort, technique, commitment to scheme. You know what they’re going to do and it doesn’t matter because they put great effort and intensity into it. They’re down 13 with nine and change to go in Boston – Boston’s record up 13 since Paul Pierce has been there is like a joke, how good it is, and they just calmly, boom, boom, boom, LeBron re-enters and they go on and win the game.”

The 2011 lockout will change the way rosters are constructed for the life of the collective bargaining agreement that came out of it, with rampant belief that it will be next to impossible to amass three established superstars on one team again. If the Heat eventually overtake the record 33-game win streak the Lakers put together 40 years ago, it figures to be a mark that won’t be challenged unless the NBA changes its business model.

“I never use the word ‘can’t,’ ” Frank said. “There’s always going to be someone ahead of the game. How they do it, that’s the genius. Those are the Joe Dumarses of the world – those guys who look at it, project it, have a plan in place. Miami, the genius in what they did is they knew exactly what they were doing. They went through the pain of 15 wins.”

The Pistons, going through their own growing pains, have a plan in place, as well, and this summer – when Dumars figures to have no less than $25 million of available cap space – is when it can swing into full implementation mode. The next time they visit Miami, the gap between the franchises doesn’t figure to be as pronounced as the starkly different streaks each carries suggest they are now.