YOU CAN’T JUDGE THE NEW PISTONS OFF ONE BAD NIGHT

Iwent to see the “new” Pistons on Wednesday night. You know the “new” Pistons? The best shooting team in the NBA? The team that won nine of its first 13 games? The team that has everyone in the city going, “How about those Pistons? They’re really showing up!”

I went to see them.

They didn’t show up.

At least not in the first half. Instead, there was a certain “old school” feel to the night, at least if “old school” means the past few years in Pistons wasteland. The Palace, once again, was nearly empty at tip-off. The fans were, once again, deathly silent early on. (Put it this way: At one point, I had to ask the radio play-by-play man to keep it down.) Tommy Hearns, as usual, arrived late enough so that people would notice.

And once again, the loudest cheers were for the ball races on the big screen.

As for the Pistons? They had two turnovers in the first minute and a 21-point deficit by halftime. They made more bad passes than you’d see at a Scott Mitchell convention, had a rebounding shortage that bordered on starvation, and a shot selection that specialized in hitting the rim.

It was pretty bad basketball. And this was against a mediocre team, the Charlotte Hornets. As the Pistons scored a meager 32 points in the half, regular attendees were racing up and apologizing.

“Of all the nights to pick!” they said.

“They’re better than this!” they said.

“Believe us!” they said.

Relax.

I’ve been watching the Lions all season, remember?

Reasons to like the Pistons

And true to billing, the “new” Pistons came back in the second half. They shot better. They passed better. Unfortunately, as Jon Barry would later put it,
“It’s pretty hard to spot a team a 21-point lead.”

Besides, there was one other problem. The Pistons set a record Wednesday night: 18 rebounds the entire game, lowest in NBA history.

Well. That’s new.

“We’re not proud of that,” coach Rick Carlisle said after the 104-96 loss.
“Rebounding is effort. We had nine in the first half and nine in the second. That dug us a huge hole.”

It was pretty amazing. I mean, P.J. Brown of the Hornets had more rebounds than the entire Pistons team. Charlotte could have been playing beach volleyball out there. Eighteen rebounds? That’s what, fewer than five per quarter? Shaq gets that many caroms on a single free throw.

The funny thing is, the Pistons almost overcame it. They clawed back to within four points several times. They blocked shots. They stole the ball. And they weren’t out of it until the very end.

Heck, even Tommy Hearns stayed until 1:34 left.

Here’s what I like about this “new” team (and, give us a little credit, you judge an NBA team by a single midweek game about as much as you judge a car by its taillights.) I like the Pistons’ big guys. Ben Wallace is an NBA rarity, a major force who doesn’t need to score. Zeljko Rebraca is a sleeper. And Cliff Robinson is, so far, a steal of a pickup.

I like Jerry Stackhouse’s scoring. I like the attitude that guys like Chucky Atkins, Michael Curry and Barry bring. They are smart enough to know they aren’t superstars but gutsy enough to play with any superstar you put in front of them.

And I like Carlisle, the new coach.

Then again, at this point, I like any coach who doesn’t pull his quarterback.

No coasting for Carlisle

No, seriously, I like the way Carlisle didn’t lose it when his team was unhinging in the first half. I like the way he summed up the loss afterward:

“We didn’t start the game with the kind of disposition we’ve had most nights this year.

“We gotta remember who we are as a team. We’re a collection of parts that’s equal to a bigger whole.”

Translation: We’re not good enough to coast. Back to work.

The Pistons were coming off a big win on the road against Orlando. They were 9-4 and perhaps, at tip-off time, believing too much of their notices.

If they’re really a new team — if they’re really a good team — that will stop shortly after it starts. The truth is, an NBA record is less about the big nights in the packed houses than about Wednesday nights when it’s cold and rainy and the place is half-empty.

You win those nights, you’re gonna win a lot.

So forget Wednesday. Forget the (ugh) rebounding record. A 9-5 mark at this point is plenty encouraging. And, given what people expected, there may indeed be a change brewing at the Palace.

Of course, at one point during the game, a woman leaned over the rail behind me and yelled to a worker, “Excuse me? Can I get a chardonnay?”

So it hasn’t changed that much.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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