Gerald Henderson was about to enter some data into the computer in his Philadelphia office Saturday when the phone rang. The Pistons. They needed a guard. Fast. Henderson, who had only been playing pickup basketball three times a week, was on a plane that night. Sunday morning he went to the Beverly Hills racquet club to shoot hoops, just hours before the Pistons would play the Lakers on network television. “Don’t hurt yourself,” one of the surprised pickup players there told him. “They need you today.”
And sure enough, a few hours later, here was Henderson, with a uniform they either stitched together Sunday morning or kept from last year, running onto the Palace floor when Joe Dumars pulled up lame with a tight hamstring. Henderson dribbled the ball upcourt while the trainers stretched Dumars’ legs over his head. Suddenly, the Pistons, the team with the best guard rotation in the country, were now this: Vinnie Johnson, a veteran who is having trouble shooting free throws; Lance Blanks, a rookie who looks, most of the time, in a state of utter confusion; John Long, who last month wasn’t even playing professional basketball; and Henderson, fresh from his computer. You want hard times in Piston land? You got ’em.
“Every time you turn around it seems like someone’s going down,” said James Edwards, after the Pistons’ tough 102-96 overtime loss to the Lakers, the kind of game that, given its tenacious defense, the Pistons would have won in months past. “We’re at the point now where we’re just trying to survive, get through the regular season, and hope for the best spot we can get in the playoffs.”
Unfortunately, this is only February. And the Pistons, Kings of the Hill the last two years, are now like a kid trying to scrape one last spoonful of ice cream from a dixie cup. They’re reaching in corners. They’re coming up dry. Sunday was the kind of game the Pistons love to play: national exposure, arch-rivals, a crowd, for a change, sounding like real basketball fans.
They tried. They couldn’t do it. Two days after losing to Charlotte for the first time in history, they go down to Lakers at home. Let’s be honest, folks. This is a patchwork unit right now. Not only are they hurt medically, but their offense is being spun around as if it’s inside a washing machine. The number of makeshift lineups with Isiah Thomas and John Salley both on the injured list is confusing and therefore slow. Also ineffective. “A lot of times, when I come upcourt, I have to check and see who I’m out there with,” Dumars admitted after the game. “I gotta say ‘OK, I got Mark and Dennis and Bill . . .
“That affects you more than anything else. In the past, we knew each other so well, you just knew where a guy was going to be standing on a certain play. You didn’t even have to look. Now, you have to look, and that split second of indecision is what costs you.”
He shook his head.
Hard times. Two points of view Now. OK. I have a cardinal rule that I try to follow with the NBA. The rule is this: “It snows in February.” What that means, basically, is that the NBA games that really count are played when the weather is warm. So you shouldn’t spend too much time reacting to any one game at this point in the season. However, there are signs that this is a time to be concerned. How concerned? Let’s try the optimistic and the pessimistic approaches.
First, let’s be pessimistic and get it over with. The Pistons’ injuries are such that things may get worse before they get better. Dumars is now a walking time bomb, as anyone who has suffered a hamstring injury can tell you. At any time, that thing can snap, and it’ll be Joe looking for nice clothes to wear as he sits on the bench alongside Isiah and Salley. Plus, Vinnie’s free throw shooting is just one part of a game that is not what it used to be. Mark Aguirre is banged up. Bill Laimbeer seemed to float in and out of his old, effective self. And the cumulative result of all these gut-twisting regular season games will be a weary and less-than-confident Detroit team when the playoffs begin. At the very least, its opponents will no longer be intimidated. They’re not dumb. They see the weakness. And, as a result, the Pistons will lose their crown.
There. Are you depressed?
Now. Let’s be optimistic. The regular season only matters so much. The Pistons are still good enough to gain a good playoff spot, and, given the number of hot teams in the East this year, every round is going to be hard, so what does it matter? Salley will be back in a week or two. Besides, with Johnson, Henderson, William Bedford and John Long getting all these extra minutes, they may be much improved come May, and more effective in relieving the starters, who, hopefully, will include Dumars and Isiah, both healthy and ready to defend the title.
By the way, Johnson likes this idea. “Maybe all this is really a blessing in disguise,” he said, after shooting 5-for- 15 Sunday.
To which Dumars later responded: “If this is a blessing in disguise, I’d like to see some blessings undisguised soon.”
You can say that again.