IT WAS THE game he had to play in the game they had to have. Superstars don’t deliver every night, but they do when they must, or they’re not superstars for long. Grant Hill pushed the curtain aside Friday night and did what you’re supposed to do when your whole business is watching. Took the night over.
He hit the game’s first shot, nailed his next two, grabbed a rebound, soared for a lay-up, pulled another rebound, another lay-up, another jumper, a couple of assists. Hill may be marketed as the smiling kid in the varsity letter sweater, but he was all leather jacket Friday. His face had the furrowed brow of a sweating surgeon, and his body language was tight muscle and springing legs.
He had 11 points in the first quarter, six more in the second, nine assists and five rebounds by the end of the third, and a seat on the bench by the fourth. His signature play should have its own moment in America’s Greatest Heists: He leapt just as Atlanta’s Tyrone Corbin went to pass, sucked the ball in like flypaper, and flew the length of the court for a banking lay-up.
Hello, travel? Book Atlanta.
“We did what we were supposed to do — win at home,” Hill said after the Pistons pushed this five-game playoff to a showdown Sunday with a 103-82 victory. “Now we have to go to Atlanta and do what we’re not supposed to do.”
One more night. That’s what Friday was about. One more chance to prove the promise of 1999 was not a false whisper, and the first two losses of this series were a false alarm. In a performance that was exhilarating (“Can you believe they’re playing like this?”), frustrating (“How come they didn’t play like this in Games 1 or 2?”) and even remarkable (“They broke 100 points?”), the Pistons gave fans around here reason to pay closer attention.
And a chance for Hill to go where he has never gone before.
The chants for Joe D.
“We want Joe! …We Want Joe!”
It was the game he most wanted at the time they most needed it. Joe Dumars has given a Russian novel of a career to this town. He is looking now for a closing paragraph. Friday night, he found a few choice adjectives in fast-twirling jump shots from the corner, top of the key and sweet spots just outside the three-point line.
Bang! Bang! Bang! In the third quarter alone — the dead zone for the Pistons this entire series — Dumars shook at least eight years off his about-to-retire 35-year-old body and buried, in order, a 26-footer, a 17-footer, a 24-footer and a 25-footer. By the time he sat down, Detroit had a 19-point lead.
And soon the crowd was chanting.
“We want Joe! …We want Joe! . . .”
It was a sweet moment. Dumars, in typically low-key fashion, tried not to smile, even though this could be his last night of basketball in Detroit. It was a photo album closer, 20 points, four three-pointers, and a personal encore call from the house.
“I told him to take a bow,” Lindsey Hunter said afterward. He rolled his eyes.
“Yeah. Like he was gonna do that. . . .”
When Dumars finally emerged in the locker room, he was asked what he thought of the “We want Joe” chorus.
“Thank you very much,” he said, laughing, “but I am not getting back up….”
There is, after all, at least one more game to play. And if you really want to gauge Dumars’ value to the team, it wasn’t the points or the applause. It was this: With a minute left, he gathered his teammates together on the bench and said, “Do not walk off cheering. Do not walk off smiling. Do not give Atlanta anything to use as motivation for Sunday. Act as if you expected this.”
That’s his value.
That’s the stuff the Pistons will miss most.
A showdown in Georgia
And now, the moment of truth for both of them. Dumars will end his career Sunday or advance to a second round for the first time since the Bad Boys defended their crown.
Hill, meanwhile, has never gone farther than Game 5 of an opening playoff series, losing his last crack to this same Atlanta team two years ago in Atlanta. On that day, he saw his final shots swatted away by Dikembe Mutombo. The buzzer sounded and that was that.
With Friday’s victory, he has come full circle, finally returning to his marker on the mountain. Now we see how much wind he’s got.
“He came out with something tonight that I’ve never seen from him before,” Dumars said, nodding over in Hill’s direction. “He wanted it. He was gonna take it. I love it.
“Now he has to do it again.”
Hill knows it. He knows if defeat comes Sunday night, the Pistons will be losers but he will be the failure. All eyes are on Hill to prove his status, step up or step down.
“If that’s how it has to be for me, so be it,” he said after his 23-point performance. “I’ve been waiting for this for two years. I have to be aggressive. This is it. Leave all the beepers and cell phones behind. Change my alias at the hotel. No distractions.”
He laughed, but more in excitement than humor. Before Game 3, Hill had been reading a book on positive thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.
“I finished that one,” he said, grinning. “I need to get a book on war.”
Don’t bother. As Joe will tell you, at this point, war and basketball are much the same. There’s the first shot, the last shot, and the heart you show in between.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).