It was somewhere between a Phoenix steal and a Phoenix hook shot, or maybe a Phoenix steal and a Phoenix lay-up, or possibly a Phoenix steal and a Phoenix slam dunk — I can’t remember, the game was such a mess — that I first heard the sentence I knew was coming. Some fan behind me yelled it out.
“I’d like to see ’em play us when Isiah is healthy!”
Yep. The first loss since the captain went down with a bad wrist, and immediately, people moan about how much he’s missed. Of course, no one talked this way when the Pistons won five in a row without him. But that’s human nature. We will hear this — “If only Isiah were here” — every time the Pistons lose from now until he comes back, which is supposedly not until the playoffs but, given Isiah, could be tomorrow morning.
Know this: The Pistons can win without Thomas. They just have fewer ways to win. Gone is the way Isiah used his hot shooting when teammates were cold. Gone is the way Isiah used his imagination, making great passes for easy baskets. Gone is the way Isiah used his quickness down the lane.
That still leaves the Pistons with a heavy supply of ammunition: Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, James Edwards, Vinnie Johnson. But there will be times now when the cupboard runs dry, and maybe Sunday — an embarrassing 112-97 loss to Phoenix, at the Palace — was one of these times, seeing as Laimbeer had a whopping total of one point and one turnover, and Johnson had a big four points and three turnovers, and Dumars, playing in pain, was double-teamed so often, he must have felt like Robert Redford in that love scene from “Havana.”
But maybe not. Losing teams always say “Give credit to the other guys.”
I’m going to do that right here. Better put the radar on KJ See, there’s this little guard on the Phoenix team, looks like he just jumped off the school bus? His name is Kevin Johnson. You might have seen him Sunday. Or tried to see him. He was that blur on your TV set. I don’t want to say Johnson is fast, but if he were working for Dominos, their guaranteed delivery would be 15 minutes.
“Fast,” admitted Dumars, shaking his head.
“Quick,” admitted Vinnie Johnson, grimacing.
Get out your thesaurus: rapid, swift, accelerated. Johnson’s first step is so speedy, he could dodge a bullet. And after that, all you see is the ball falling through the net.
“Nobody in this league can guard KJ when he’s on his game,” said Paul Westphal, a Suns assistant coach who once upon a time was a pretty fair guard.
“His foot speed is incredible. Sometimes in practice, I try to guard him? Forget it. You get whiplash just watching him go past.”
It was that way Sunday afternoon, as Johnson burned Detroit for 28 points, 14 assists, and at least a dozen speeding tickets. Dumars couldn’t stop him. Johnson couldn’t stop him. Lance Blanks? Why not push the rookie off a cliff; it would be less painful.
And forget the Isiah talk. Johnson usually has a field day against him, too. The only reason KJ is not talked about more in Detroit is because Phoenix only gets here once a year. Had the Suns and not the Trailblazers been in last year’s NBA Finals — and they almost were — fans in Detroit would hear those initials, roll their eyes, and say: “Is he fast, or what?”
Of course, it doesn’t help when Johnson’s best passes come from Pistons. And that was also the case on Sunday. Detroit coughed up the ball 18 times, or about one turnover for every two baskets they scored. You want one stat to sum up this defeat? There it is: One turnover for every two baskets.
Got it? Dumars may be key to future Good. Now forget it. The only thing less important than a regular-season NBA game is a regular-season NHL game. Sunday’s defeat — only the Pistons’ second loss at home this year — still doesn’t mean diddly in the big picture. In fact, as embarrassing as it was, there are only two scenes that stick with me this morning:
1) The sight of Dumars double-teamed all day. I hate to say it, but this is a good way to attack the Pistons’ weakened backcourt. Phoenix shut down Detroit’s pick-and-roll all day, and got countless steals from anticipating the pass. They also kept the Pistons guards from penetrating, then swinging the ball out to Laimbeer, a common source for points. Opposing teams will surely copy this strategy. If the Pistons were the Pentagon, Sunday’s game film would not be released for security reasons.
2) The sight of Dumars’ left foot. After the defeat, in a nearly empty locker room, Dumars revealed a swelling on his foot the size of a golf ball. It comes from strained ligaments suffered nearly a month ago. Before each game, they wrap it so tightly he can’t feel it, and after the game, they unwrap it and he is pierced with pain, the kind that makes your eyes water. I asked what he needs to cure it. “Three months off,” he said, forcing a grin.
This, I would worry about. This, and the fact that against good teams — such as Phoenix, with records over .500 — the Pistons are merely average.
Then again, you could take the attitude of Cotton Fitzsimmons, the Suns coach, who, after the game, said, “What place are the Pistons in?”
“First,” someone said.
“I wouldn’t worry too much.”
How come coaches are always so smart?