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I Love the Pistons

 

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.  Detroit 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 Detroit player):

 

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.  Hamilton 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 bandwagon.

 

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and can be reached at adam.hoff@pepperdine.edu or by sitemail at adamo112.

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