PATCHED-UP PISTONS HIT HARD TIMES

Gerald Henderson was at the computer in his Philadelphia office Saturday when the phone rang. The Pistons. They needed a guard. Fast. Henderson, who had only been playing pick-up basketball three times a week, shut off the computer, packed a bag and got on a plane for Detroit. The next morning he was at the Beverly Hills Racquet Club, shooting hoops — just hours before the Pistons would play the Lakers on network television. “Don’t hurt yourself,” one of the surprised pick-up 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 that morning or kept from last year, running onto the Palace floor when Joe Dumars pulled up lame with a tight hamstring.
“NOW ENTERING THE GAME, AT GUARD, GERALD HENDERSON . . . ” the announcer bellowed.

Suddenly, the Pistons, the team with “the best guard rotation in the country,” were down to this: Vinnie Johnson, a veteran who’s having trouble shooting free throws; Lance Blanks, a rookie who appears, most of the time, to be in an 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 it.

“Every time you turn around, it seems like someone’s going down,” said James Edwards, after the Pistons’ tough 102-96 overtime defeat by the Lakers, the kind of game that, given its tenacious defense, the Pistons would have won in the past — with their normal roster. “We’re at a 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. But with Isiah Thomas and John Salley in street clothes, and Dumars out for at least the next two games, the Pistons, Kings of the NBA Hill for two years, are now like a kid trying to scrape a last spoonful of ice cream from an empty Dixie cup. They’re reaching in corners. They’re coming up dry. Sunday was the kind of game they normally love to play: against the Lakers, national TV, the crowd, for a change, roaring.

But instead of heroics, here was a bone-dry Pistons offense, in the final two minutes of regulation, missing a desperation jumper from Bill Laimbeer, missing a follow-up jumper by Johnson, and finally turning the ball over on a traveling violation by Edwards. Here was Dumars — who didn’t score in the second half — missing a shot that could have won the game in regulation. Here were the Pistons in overtime, scoring just six points, missing a key free throw, losing the ball twice as they tried to force it inside.

Hard times.

Who’s playing, anyway?

Let’s be honest, folks. This is a patchwork team right now. Not only are they hurt medically, but their offense is being spun around as if inside a washing machine. The number of makeshift lineups with Thomas and Salley both on the injured list is confusing.”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, his toe swollen, his hamstring like a tight snare drum. “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 vantage points Now. OK. I have a cardinal rule that I try to follow with the NBA. The rule is this: It snows in February. Translation: The NBA games that really count are played when the weather is warm, so you shouldn’t worry too much about any one game at this point. However, there are signs that this is indeed a time to be concerned for the Pistons. How concerned? That depends on your makeup.

First, let’s be pessimistic. The Pistons’ injuries might get worse before they get better. Dumars, who did come back Sunday, with a bandage wrapped around his thigh, is now a walking time bomb, as people who have suffered a hamstring injury can tell you. At any moment, 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 might be just one part of a game that is not what it used to be. Mark Aguirre is banged up. Laimbeer seems 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 — Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston — will no longer be intimidated.

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 top 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 Long getting all these extra minutes, they might be much improved come May, and more effective in relieving the starters — who, hopefully, by then, will include Dumars and Isiah, both healthy and ready for action.

There. Feeling better?

Which way it will happen, obviously, remains to be seen. But there is no mistaking this: the Pistons, who used to find the regular season a fairly smooth exercise, are now having to scratch and claw every night just to win by a basket. That will take a toll.

For the record, Johnson likes the optimistic angle. “Maybe all this is really a blessing in disguise,” he said Sunday, after shooting 5-for-15.

To which Dumars (3-for-14) sighed: “If this is a blessing in disguise, I’d like to see some blessings undisguised soon.”

You can say that again.

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