Will Bynum, from left, Kwame Brown, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell watch their chances in Game 3 slip away. (Robin Buckson/The Detroit News)
Auburn Hills -- One last feisty flurry, a few hard fouls, a couple snarls, and then it was over. The Pistons had a little something left, but not much, not that it really matters anymore.
It's not official but it's absolutely inevitable, and has been for a while. And for a team that terrorized the Eastern Conference with a clenched fist for six years, this is the worst kind of humiliation. The Pistons are being defrocked and declawed, and LeBron James is having a grand old time doing it.
With five minutes remaining Friday night, James grabbed an alley-oop pass from Mo Williams and slammed it in, then celebrated like the bad guy was dead, which for Cleveland, he is. The Cavaliers stomped the Pistons 79-68 to seize a 3-0 series lead, and everyone knows where this is headed: straight toward a first-round sweep.
The funeral will be Sunday in Game 4. This was the respectful public viewing, and it actually was interesting for a while, 53-53 after three quarters. But in the NBA, the Pistons know both sides of the brutal truth: There's no stopping a rising superstar, and there's no stemming a precipitous decline.
This isn't about heart and pride and effort anymore. The Pistons played hard for stretches, they're just not nearly good enough. Once this team fully realized how valuable Chauncey Billups was after the trade, and how uncoachable Allen Iverson was, it was over.
All that's left is the humbling, and the Cavs are delivering it with glee. They shrugged off Kwame Brown's hard foul on James, they shook off the Pistons' attempts to be physical, and they glided to victory. James mostly toyed with the Pistons and finished with 25 points, and former Piston Joe Smith chipped in 19.
"We get paid a lot of money, you should always play with pride and play with heart," Richard Hamilton said. "I'm not the type of guy who hangs my hat on moral victories. Everybody here knows what it means to win."
Or, what it meant to win. Hamilton admitted it was killing him to watch the Cavs celebrate, knowing the Pistons used to snap teams in half at The Palace.
"It's hard," Hamilton added. "Just a terrible situation."
There's isn't even much anger left -- from the Pistons or their fans. The Cavs won 66 games in the regular season. The Pistons won 39. This series is a surprise only if you're clueless.
There's nothing left to say, and don't take my word for it. Antonio McDyess, the most-forthright Piston, was asked for a comment.
"Sorry guys, I got nothing to say," he said.
Rasheed Wallace, you got a minute?
It's a sad scene, as endings usually are. Sad and eerie, and maybe for this final season, avoidable. The Pistons did win 59 games last year, and played the eventual champion Celtics tough. For all those who shrieked for Joe Dumars to blow it up after six straight Eastern Conference Finals, this is what you get -- the pieces of what used to be a very good team, the hole in the ground where it stood, and the memories.
Shadows of former selves
Nothing goes on forever, but goodness, when the Pistons deconstruct their great eras, they crumble ingloriously. On this night, there was Wallace trying to keep his heavy old legs moving, trying to summon his old edge. Sure enough, he got another technical foul, but it came from the bench, where he did his shouting while sitting.
There was one-time Pistons stalwart Ben Wallace, a reserve for the Cavaliers, his hair shaved short. There were the thunder sticks, slapped together by a decent-sized crowd, but with more than a few Cleveland interlopers. Was it really only five years ago those sticks were thumped with passion as the Pistons stomped the Lakers?
This should be painful in every way for Pistons fans, watching another superstar shove them aside, as Michael Jordan did in the '90s. Then they get to turn on the TV and see Chauncey Billups averaging 33.5 points and zero turnovers as Denver holds a 2-0 lead on New Orleans.
This is what happens when you pull the string, any string, on a tightly wound team. It unravels, and can't be re-wound. Dumars' task will be very difficult now, because he squandered his cushion. He essentially got nothing for Billups, and although all that cap space is a worthwhile asset, it still must be used smartly, otherwise the trade will go down as a disaster.
Planning for the future will resume shortly because there's no suspense left in this series, in this season, in this era. The Pistons may not be giving up but they've long since given in -- to age and frustration. And yes, to simple inevitability.