In case you didn’t recognize this game in the first half, the Pistons lost four of them last May. Four in a row. To this same team. The same way. With New Jersey racing downcourt and stuffing it in their face. With a search party out for a reliable Detroit offense.
Why, if you didn’t know better in those first 24 minutes, you’d have thought the Pistons had been frozen since getting swept in last year’s conference finals. The truth was something worse. The truth was they’d had a year to improve, and four days to ward against a letdown, and yet here they were, slipping into the old pattern against New Jersey. Every Net seemed shot out of a cannon, coming off a fast break and soaring above the rim. Kenyon Martin with an alley-oop slam. Richard Jefferson with an effortless rim-rattler. Rodney Rogers and Aaron Williams — both bench players! — hanging on the hoop after jams.
By the end of that first half, New Jersey had countless breaks, steals and rebounds, and Detroit had only 34 points and an assortment of bugaboos: technical fouls, traveling calls, even a palming violation.
At the buzzer, the Pistons were screaming at the refs, scowling at their fate, and as the Nets headed into the tunnel, Martin had a smirk on his face that said: “Yep, we knew it. Same old Pistons.”
How bad was it? Well, at halftime, the fans, clearly in a nasty mood, even booed William Hung, the “American Idol” guy.
And he’s supposed to be bad!
The Pistons aren’t. And here’s the good news. They aren’t bad. They did something in the second half that they didn’t do last year, maybe couldn’t do last year.
They took the smirk off Martin’s face and wiped the floor with it.
Worst of times becomes best of times
“Everything changed,” Larry Brown said after the second-half comeback, describing in two words what it took 61 points, 20 rebounds and a choking defense to accomplish.
On a seemingly dead canvas Friday night, the Pistons painted a masterful yellow brick road, coming back from a 12-point deficit to win by 15. It wasn’t just the pinball-like scoring stretches — Rip Hamilton with a jumper, Chauncey Billups with a longer jumper, Rasheed Wallace with an even longer jumper.
It wasn’t just the rebounding, or the defense that kept forcing turnovers and traveling calls.
No, it was the creativity of it all. Because this was a night when Detroit’s most reliable recent offensive weapon, Tayshaun Prince, had a big goose egg hanging over his halo. He never got untracked. Didn’t make a basket.
So what did Brown do? He let the muscle do the hustle. The Pistons began the third quarter with that old reliable offensive juggernaut — Ben Wallace. He hit a jumper. Then another. And another.
“I told him to get involved,” Brown said sheepishly, “but I didn’t tell him to shoot jumpers. He did that on his own.”
When told that, Wallace grinned and said, “Hey, if they’re gonna leave me open . . . “
And soon burly Corliss Williamson came in with his typical grinding toss-ups, lane spinners and glass-kissers. Let the muscle do the hustle. Hamilton heated up. Billups heated up. (Heated? He was an assassin.) And Rasheed Wallace — well, let’s face it. He’ll take some shots that’ll make you rip your hair out. But when the game is hot and he uncorks one of those grenade-tossing three-pointers, and it rips the net — well, it’s the opponent that’s ripping its hair out. Just ask New Jersey.
“They hit one shot and another and another,” Jason Kidd said. “And you look up and suddenly you’re down 12.”
Funny. Weren’t the Pistons saying the same thing about the Nets a year ago?
Pistons do far, far better
Consider how much the Pistons pulled off in that second half: They held New Jersey to 11 points in the third quarter. They held Kidd to one basket for 24 minutes. They stole the ball eight times, blocked four shots, and, oh yeah, scored 61 points, which for the Pistons is the equivalent of six trips to the buffet line.
And, most important, they buried their own demons. They are halfway home in this second round, having done what they promised to do — avoid the Game 2 letdown they suffered against Milwaukee. People are starting to describe this team as (gasp) “explosive.”
“At one point tonight, I just said I’m not scoring, so the heck with it,” Prince said. “And look who stepped up? Five other guys were scoring.”
Every game in the playoffs is a step. What the Pistons did Friday night is a defining step of maturity: They overcame old habits, and in so doing, found new ones they’ll rely on in the future.
And, by the way, Nets, don’t expect Prince to have another game like this one.
Ah, well. A good night overall for those in attendance, except, of course, William Hung. Then again, this proves what I’ve been saying all along. She Bangs, but so do the Pistons. They can dance better, too.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org”