I Love the
Unabashedly jumping on the bandwagon
By Adam Hoff
It could go down as my favorite
NBA Finals ever. It was better than
any of Jordan's
triumphs, better than the Celtics-Lakers clashes of the 1980's, and it was even
better than the Lakers-Nets in 2002 (that was a joke, in case you were
wondering). We saw a team that nobody (with the exception of loyal
reader Dan Levinson and ESPN columnist Ric Bucher) thought could win going
against the supposedly unstoppable Lakers.
Having dispatched prime rival San Antonio in miraculous fashion, it appeared
that the path had been paved for another Los Angeles title. The Pistons had other ideas.
Honestly, it sounds clichéd and
has probably grown tiresome, but nobody gave Detroit a chance. They couldn't score, they came from the
Leastern Conference, and they didn't have a roster full of Hall-of-Famers. Plus, when you factor in Phil Jackson's
9-0 record in the Finals, the notion that the team with the most dominant
individual player usually wins, and the fact that L.A. had home court advantage, well, it seemed
daunting for the Pistons.
Obviously, everybody had it wrong.
was, as we heard ninety million times, "clearly the better team," and they
"played the right way." It got to
the point where it was tiresome to hear people jump on the bandwagon. Wait, no it didn't. Is there room for one more?
Here's what made this Pistons
team so special (and as an added bonus, we'll symbolize each attribute with a
Defense (Tayshaun Prince). You could make a case that Ben
Wallace defined this attribute more than Prince, but you can't argue against the
fact that Tayshaun's defense on Kobe was the difference in the Finals. Defense is what got Detroit to the NBA Finals
and it's certainly what won it for them.
The way Tayshaun got right in Kobe's grill and stayed there play after play,
game after game, was just amazing.
He turned Kobe into an erratic jump shooter and a selfish
baby. Bryant forced shots, ignored
a superior offensive option (Shaq) time and time again, and then hinted at poor
officiating as the reason he played so poorly. I'll offer a different reason: Prince's
defense. His long arms, surprising
quickness, and absolute commitment to every play turned him into a defensive
star overnight. It helped that he
had Big Benny Wallace and the rest of the Pistons behind him, but it was Prince
that had the biggest responsibility.
So he gets the most praise.
Heart (Ben Wallace). The man with the league's best afro
and best rebounding instincts (maybe the best since Rodman) is also the
unquestioned leader of the current NBA champs. His dedication to hard work and his
passionate play leads by example and brings out the best in his teammates. He's always been a lovable guy and a
great story, but this entire 2003-2004 season has validated him as one of the
best players in the game. Andrei
Kirilenko will keep coming on strong in Ben's rearview mirror, but for now,
Wallace remains the elite player in the league when it comes to dominating games
without scoring. The real irony is
that his most impressive performance came in the Pistons' only loss. In the fourth quarter of that Game Two,
he was grabbing every rebound, dunking on multiple players from impossible
angles, and defending the paint like his children were sleeping in there. He was just a joy to watch.
Offensive Rebounding (tie; Rip Hamilton,
Tayshaun Prince, and Ben Wallace).
When you outrebound a team as badly and as consistently as Detroit did the Lakers,
there tends to be a plethora of examples.
had 15 offensive boards through four games, which led all players from both
teams. Wallace had a stretch in
which he snared an offensive board on five straight possessions in Game Five,
the last one culminating in a vicious dunk on a hapless Deveon George (was
anyone exposed more than that guy, by the way?). Meanwhile, Prince seemed to get every
important board, grabbing long baseline rebounds so many times that it seemed
like he'd entered the Matrix. He
also grabbed arguably the biggest offensive board of the series late in Game
Four when the Pistons were clinging to a six-point lead. After a Billups miss, Prince ran down
the long board, brought the ball back to the perimeter and then fed Rasheed for
a free-throw line jumper. That was
the dagger that ended the series for Los Angeles.
Clutch Shooting (Chauncey Billups). How many huge shots did this guy
make? It felt like dozens. Some were obvious; like when he drilled
back-to-back threes in the fourth quarter of Game Four. Others were more subtle; the
confidence-building 18-footers in the first quarter of Game One (when the rest
of the Pistons looked tighter than a drum), the steady dose of free throws that
seemed to propel Detroit through their dry stretches on offense, and the big
three-point plays that always came at the right time to stop a Lakers run and
right the ship. You could argue for
hours whether Billups should have won the MVP award (Prince and Ben both make
compelling cases), but there's no denying his importance to the Pistons. And that's just the overwhelming theme
with this team. Even as we
celebrate the individuals that played so well, it was the composition of the
team that made it all possible. All
of their strengths worked together and their weaknesses were accounted for,
which made them a team in the truest sense of the word. Take away any one of them and it
wouldn't have been the same.
Certainly that is true for Chauncey Billups.
(One other quick thought on
Billups. It's not as if this was a
huge shock. He'd struggled some in
the second half of the season and was off and on during the playoffs, but he was
a beast in the 2003 postseason.
Sure he can be inconsistent and he struggles with his shooting
percentage, but I'm shocked that people forgot how good he was in the playoffs
last year. He was the primary
reason that the Pistons got by T-Mac and the Magic and he absolutely torched the
76ers with big shot after big shot.
His ability to step up in the Finals came as no surprise to me. What surprised me is that it surprised
so many others … if that makes sense.
Transition Basketball (Rip Hamilton). Rip's a little creepy with that face
mask and he sort of stalled out a bit after being praised here in the Insider
column, but despite a rough opening game in the Finals, he once again found a
way to rack up the points; by getting out on the break and running everyone into
the ground. There were times in the
Western Conference playoffs that the Lakers looked susceptible to the running
game, but nothing prepared us for the way Detroit torched them in the open court. Every long rebound and steal led to a
fast break. The Pistons were just
relentless and by the fourth quarter of every game they were running the older,
slower Lakers into the ground.
Interior Scoring (Rasheed Wallace). When Wallace was dealt to the
Pistons in midseason, they were quickly anointed as the new power in the East
and a legitimate title contender.
However, the hype quickly faded.
It wasn't as if Detroit struggled or got any worse with ‘Sheed,
it was just that they didn't seem to get much better either. Wallace was deferential on offense,
passionate but under control, and totally committed to defense … kind of like
the Wallace that Detroit already had. It was admirable to see ‘Sheed make such
an effort to become a role player and blend in, the only problem was that the
Pistons needed him to be more assertive.
His role was to be aggressive
offensively and when it become apparent that he was going to be content blocking
shots and jacking up threes, well, it didn't look like Detroit had really changed
a whole lot. And then when Wallace
started having problems with one of his hooves, things really looked bleak. It was for all those reasons that I
picked the Nets in round two; an upset that very nearly happened. But then the Indiana series rolled
around and Wallace's presence down low started to become a real factor. Then he torched the gimpy Karl Malone
and the atrocious Slava Medvedenko and the rest is history. It took a while, but Detroit finally got
the frontline scoring they needed from Wallace and the constant threat of his
post-up game wound up opening things up for Hamilton in the clincher.
Mental Toughness (Mike James). The guy played maybe 20 minutes in
the Finals, but he made the most of them.
After starting at point guard in Miami last year and in Boston for most of this
year, you would imagine that James would have been mired in a funk once he found
himself sitting on the Detroit bench behind both Billups and Lindsay
Hunter. Not so. In fact, during a crucial stretch in
Game Four, James came off the bench and ignited multiple fast break
opportunities with his defense and quickness. To come in and make that kind of
contribution after riding pine for so long takes mental toughness. Mike James had it. The entire Pistons team had it.
There is plenty more. Elden Campbell's experience, Lindsay
Hunter's fearlessness, Corliss Williamson's intensity, Larry Brown's passion and
resolve, the loyalty of the Piston's fans, the foresight of Joe Dumars, the
hilarity of Darko … the list goes on and on. And that's why it was so fun to watch
Detroit win the
NBA Finals. It wasn't just that
they were the underdogs. It wasn't
just because they beat the Lakers, a team that was so dysfunctional and selfish
that it was rewarding to see it all come crashing down for them. It wasn't merely because Larry Brown
received vindication. Or that so
many misfits and outcasts finally found a home. It was a Finals for the ages because a
true team triumphed over a collection of individuals. It was a great thing for the game of
basketball, a good lesson for kids on the value of teamwork and humility, and
good entertainment to boot.
It remains to be seen whether the
Pistons can build on this triumph and start a little dynasty of their own. Maybe they are just hitting their
stride, maybe this is as good as it gets for them. Either way, they were a deserving
champion and a great team.
Consider me squarely on the
Adam Hoff is a columnist for
WhatifSports.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by
sitemail at adamo112.