PHILADELPHIA - Maurice Cheeks expects to hear the hecklers one last time.
Cheeks wants to be the one who gets the last laugh with a Game 7 victory and silence those Pistons fans who needled him the last three games in Detroit.
The 76ers coach told the hecklers, "I'll be back," as the final seconds ticked off the clock in a Game 5 loss, putting Detroit up 3-2 in the first-round playoff series.
"What'd you want me to say? See you next year?" Cheeks said yesterday.
It will be next season if the Sixers can't win Game 6 tonight in Philadelphia.
"I've believed in my players the whole season long and I'm not going to not believe in them now," Cheeks said. "We've done it before and we've been able to come back."
Only now, the Sixers don't have half a season to rally and start playing better basketball. They've looked every bit like a seventh seed since the second half of Detroit's Game 4 win.
The Pistons scored on eight straight possessions in the first quarter of Game 5 and the outcome was all but decided with three quarters left. Now the Pistons lead in the series for the first time and are the first team to win consecutively.
"You want to take care of things as quickly as possible, because it can change quickly," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said. "We've put together three solid halves, and we need to keep that up."
The third-seeded Orlando Magic awaits the winner in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Sixers still believe they can be that team. They're heading home - where they split Games 3 and 4 - and Andre Iguodala is coming off his best game of the series with a career playoff-high 21-point outing in Game 5.
"The series is over? C'mon, you've got to be kidding me," center Samuel Dalembert said.
Dalembert caused a buzz with his new 'do, a mohawk that makes him look like a leaner, longer B.A. Baracus. He had his initials shaved on one side and the initials of a "loved one" inscribed on the other side. Dalembert asked Detroit native and 76ers guard Willie Green if he could send his barber over for a pregame cut on Tuesday. Dalembert was offered a fade by the barber, but the center had another idea.
"Next thing I know he's got a mohawk," Green said. "Besides that, we've got business to take care of, haircut or no haircut. I don't care if he's got a bald head, come tomorrow we've got business to take care of."
Dalembert seemed agitated all the focus was on his hairstyle and not on the Game 5 loss. The normally affable center said he wanted to try something different to rally the 76ers and lighten the pressure.
"If it was a distraction for the team, I'm really sorry about that," Dalembert said. "I don't think it was."
No, what bothered the Sixers more was their inability to stop Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. Dalembert expressed his unhappiness over tailing Wallace instead of establishing himself in the paint and getting defensive help when the Pistons' big man goes outside for a 3-pointer.
Wallace has 11 3s and 16 blocks in the series, almost besting the Sixers' series totals of 20 blocks and 8-for-34 3-point shooting.
"It can be a little demoralizing when a guy makes the 3 the way he makes it," Cheeks said. "But you'd rather make Rasheed shoot a challenged 3 as opposed to someone continually driving the basket and getting in the middle of your defense."
The Pistons have been accused of "flipping a switch," or, only playing like one of the best teams in the East when they really need a win. They were caught by surprise by the eager and energetic Sixers in a Game 1 loss and the stars were uninterested when Philly took a 24-point lead and won Game 3.
"They have that switch that they throw off and on," Iguodala said. "They had it on last night."
Saunders knows the Pistons don't have to win Game 6, while the Sixers must win the game to keep their season alive. Still, he doesn't necessarily believe the Pistons are only motivated when they're being doubted.
"I didn't even know about the switch until I got here and was told that they had one," Saunders said. "Last night, I asked them to turn the switch on at
7:00, and that seemed to work."
The Sixers entered the playoffs on a four-game losing streak and haven't won two straight since the first two games of April. Philly needs more than Detroit's switch on "off" for Game 6 to send Cheeks back to banter with those courtside fans one last time.
"They said they hoped we came back," Cheeks said. "We had a little relationship throughout the series. I don't know if they really meant it. Maybe they meant next year, I don't know."