So whom did Rip Hamilton tick off to draw this assignment? As if a bad calf weren’t enough, as if running like a hamster in a wheel weren’t enough, now he had one more job: Guard Dwyane Wade.
Yuh. And let me build a skyscraper in my spare time. Let me move some furniture during halftime. Let me drive the team bus. Let me get the morning coffee and doughnuts. Guard Wade? Doesn’t that fall under a two-man job?
Well, it had the last few games – and even two men weren’t enough. Now, in Detroit’s most important night of the season (to date), Hamilton was being handed the keys to the tank and told, like the grizzled soldier, to guard the castle.
“Actually, I asked for it,” Richard Hamilton would say after leading the Pistons to a critical 106-96 victory that tied the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece. “I told Tayshaun, I’m gonna give you a break. Let me guard Wade at the beginning.’ “
Did Tayshaun Prince at least say thank you?
“He was like, All right.’ “
Rip It Up. What Hamilton did Tuesday night was a testament to human endurance. He ran every inch of the court, playing defense, then offense, with such unsparing energy, you expected the flesh to melt off him, except that he doesn’t have any flesh to spare. He is a dervish. A pogo stick. A whippet.
And, to paraphrase Devo: Whippet, Good.
In that first period of double duty, Hamilton held Wade to human numbers, just two baskets and three misses, while pumping in eight points of his own. He stuck to Wade, preventing the Miami Magician from pulling anything out of his hat, a tone that set the course for the evening. And that, it turns out, was Hamilton just getting started.
With Lindsey Hunter taking over the Wade duties in the second period, Hamilton exploded like a man freed from a bad marriage. He was nearly gleeful in sacrificing his body, driving the lane and drawing a foul on Shaquille O’Neal (his third, sending him to the bench), driving the baseline and drawing another on Michael Doleac. He was on the receiving end of a fast-break bomb pass from Carlos Arroyo and on the giving end of a slam by Prince.
He was a point guard and a shooting guard and a small forward rolled into one. He was all over the stat sheet as the Pistons built a nine-point lead, a 12-point lead, a 14-point lead. In that first half, Hamilton led the team in points, assists, free throws and shots and tied with Ben Wallace for rebounds.
Tied with Ben?
Don’t discount the Heat
All told, when the night was over, Hamilton played 45 of 48 minutes, much of it chasing the player they call Flash all over the court.
“How exhausting was that?” Hamilton was asked in the locker room.
“It’s tough,” he said. “You gotta train your mind and body to handle it. I told myself I might have to spend a lot of energy guarding him on the defensive end but I still had to be aggressive on offense.”
He smiled. “That’s why I consider myself the best-conditioned athlete in the NBA.”
Who’s gonna argue? Hamilton was wearing an oversized shirt with the words “All Eyez On Me” on the back. During the game, you couldn’t take your eyes off of him. And wherever he is this morning, Pistons fans can only hope he is snoring deeply and contentedly. Thanks largely to his efforts, the Pistons have reduced this pathway to the NBA Finals to a best-of-three affair. That’s the good news.
And the bad.
Because despite Hamilton’s brilliance – and spurts of terrific basketball from Rasheed Wallace and Prince (playmaking as much as anything else) – the Pistons hardly pulled away in this thing until the second half of the fourth quarter. Their 14-point leads were reduced to five in little more than a blink. Getting Shaq and Alonzo Mourning to the bench early with foul trouble still didn’t enable them to floor the gas. Players like Udonis Haslem and Keyon Dooling had unwelcome explosions – and we can’t even spell their names!
Let’s face it. We are four games into this thing. No more tiptoeing around this fact: The Heat is good. And only a war will win this thing.
Tuesday at least showed that the defending champions are up for that.
They put people on the ground. They banged hard for rebounds. They drove into the biggest trees in the Miami forest and didn’t worry about the bruises. They played some defense so squelching that Miami never hit the rim before the shot clock expired.
And, finally, for a Pistons team that hadn’t tasted victory in eight days, there were a few exhale moments. One came early in the fourth quarter, when Wade tried to go through his legs, got tied up by Pistons defenders, then threw up an air ball. He was so frustrated that he nearly tackled Hunter, knocking him to the ground for an obvious foul. Was that the first crack in the previously smooth veneer of this kid? If so, it was a snapshot remembered by the Pistons and stored for later.
And then, a few minutes later, Shaq threw up a shot and Antonio McDyess slammed it away. You don’t do that very often.
The Palace crowd erupted.
The game was pretty much done after that.
Starting the right way
So it was a show, and, in the end, a blowout. But this was one of those games where the start was actually more important than the ending. The Pistons were marked for an upset. Miami was wondering, albeit silently, if this was all there was to the defending champs. Had Detroit somehow come out flat, fallen behind by 10 points, there is no telling what Miami’s inflated confidence would have produced.
It didn’t happen. And more than anyone, Hamilton made sure of it. For goodness sakes, he was still out there in the final minute of the game with a double-digit lead – still racing around like a rabbit.
“Rip is pesky,” Rasheed Wallace said. “He’s a little pest out there.”
The Pistons could use more pests like that. They’ll need them Thursday night because, let’s face it, the series is simply tied, the Pistons are not, in any way, out of the woods. They are not going to roll through this thing, as some predicted, and the Heat is not going to ride Wade to endless victory, as some had gushed, and the Larry Brown situation will not prevent Detroit from winning another game, as some had worried.
This is a battle for at least two more nights, maybe three. So take the script and Rip It Up.
As for Hamilton, “the best-conditioned athlete in the NBA,” who led the Pistons with 28 points and eight assists and helped keep Wade earthbound all night long …
Let him sleep.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). He will sign copies of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” for Father’s Day on June 12 – 12:30 p.m. at Borders in Southland Mall in Taylor – and on June 18 – 11:30 a.m. at Borders in Birmingham, 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Northville and 4:30 p.m. at Borders Express at Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.