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Lackluster Pistons on the brink

DETROIT -- The Detroit Pistons haven't looked like themselves.

``Our mojo has kind of disappeared," coach Flip Saunders said.

Even if Detroit finds the intangible it's missing before hosting the Miami Heat tonight in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, it might not matter because:

Dwyane Wade appears to be unstoppable driving to the basket.

Shaquille O'Neal, rejuvenated and motivated, is as dominant as he's been in years.

Pat Riley's roster revamping has been working, and the famed coach has been making all the right moves.

``The way we've been playing, we'll be fine," O'Neal said.

History says the Heat will reach the NBA Finals for the first time. Teams leading conference or division finals, 3-1, like Miami is against Detroit, have advanced 40 of 43 times and 16 straight.

``I don't play by the percentages," Riley said. ``We need to get another win and we can't bank on that hypothetical numerology."

The Pistons, one of the most resilient teams in recent NBA history, face the same 3-1 deficit they overcame in 2003 with four of their current starters playing key roles. But this isn't the first round, and they're not playing the Orlando Magic.

The two-time defending Eastern Conference champions have regularly rallied to advance in the past, though not against a team as talented, cohesive, and healthy as this version of the Heat.

``We put ourselves in this position so many times. Obviously it's catching up with us," Detroit forward Tayshaun Prince said. ``But it's not over."

It will be soon, unless the Pistons figure out how to regain the form they had at both ends of the court during the regular season and the first seven games of the playoffs. The Pistons won 64 regular-season games, more than any team since the O'Neal-led Lakers during the 1999-2000 season.

Detroit improved offensively under Saunders, its third coach in four years, and seemed just as dominant on defense for nearly 90 games.

But since leading Cleveland, 2-0, in the second round, the Pistons have barely resembled the team favored to win the NBA title for the second time in three years. Detroit's free-flowing offense has become stagnant, and its tough defense has been tissue soft.

The Cavaliers pushed Detroit to a Game 7. Now, Miami is a win from eliminating a struggling team that has picked the worst time to forget what made it successful.

``Right now, we're just not functioning very good and we haven't since the third game against Cleveland," Saunders said.

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