Pistons reserves earning raves -- and a new nickname
Posted: Thursday January 10, 2008 1:16PM; Updated: Thursday January 10, 2008 1:47PM
The Zoo Crew. It sounds like the name of a children's TV show. Or maybe a college frat house. Or an afternoon sports talk radio team.
It's actually the moniker given to the Pistons' bench by point guard Chauncey Billups, who says the backups play like caged animals.
Detroit's reserve corps certainly has given the Pistons' attack some added teeth this season. Led by Jason Maxiell, Jarvis Hayes, Lindsey Hunter and rookies Arron Afflalo and Rodney Stuckey, the Zoo Crew was averaging a combined 27.5 points per game through Wednesday. It was the most by a Pistons bench since the '04 title squad (26.8).
But at Billups points out, it's not the scoring the Zoo Crew brings as much as it is intensity. The Pistons' starting lineup -- Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess -- might be the best in the league. But it has been known to get complacent at times.
That's where the Zoo Crew has made a difference.
During Detroit's recent 11-game winning streak, coach Flip Saunders and several key players pointed to the bench's ability to deliver a jolt as one of the keys to the surge. It's also why some feel the Pistons' starting unit will be stronger at the end of the season -- and perhaps more equipped to deal with the Celtics if they meet up in the playoffs.
"We like the energy that our bench brings," Pistons president Joe Dumars said. "The change of pace is good for us.
"We [also] like the fact that every night, those guys are out to prove something."
Dumars was hoping for just that effect when he set out to reconstruct the team's bench this past offseason. Knowing his veteran backcourt of Billups and Hamilton needed to play fewer minutes, he used his two first-round draft picks on wing players Stuckey (No. 15), a 6-foot-5 guard out of Eastern Washington, and Afflalo (No. 27), a 6-5 guard from UCLA. Then when it became apparent that the team would need some scoring pop off the bench, especially with McDyess slated to move to the starting lineup, he went out and signed former Wizards forward Hayes.
Maxiell. Hayes. Hunter. Afflalo. Stuckey. Not exactly household names.
But like a car on a Motown assembly line, the pieces have all come together. Maxiell has been one of the league's most improved players and a monster inside many nights, bringing a Ben Wallace-like intensity to the court. Hayes has knocked down jumpers with consistency (he's shooting career bests of 45.7 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from three-point range). Hunter has provided leadership when called on, though he has been put in mothballs of late to save his legs for the playoffs. Afflalo has been solid in limited minutes. Stuckey has returned from a broken hand that kept him out the first six weeks to show a feathery jumper and the ability to take his man off the dribble.
The reserves have been so good of late that veteran guard Flip Murray, who averaged 21.4 minutes a year ago, can't even get on the court anymore. Ditto for promising third-year forward Amir Johnson, who has seen only token minutes recently. Newcomers Primoz Brezec and Walter Herrmann, acquired from the Bobcats last month for Nazr Mohammed, also are having trouble finding time as they get acclimated to their new team.
The Pistons bench gave NBA fans a small glimpse of what it's all about in Wednesday night's nationally televised game against the Mavs. After the Pistons fell behind 32-20 after one quarter, the reserves got Detroit breathing again. Maxiell kept alive a couple of rebounds. Stuckey buried a long jumper, then poked the ball away from Devin Harris, leading to a Hayes dunk at the other end. Herrmann nailed a three-pointer and then began pestering Dirk Nowitzki on defense. He baited the reigning MVP into a wild missed shot on one possession and an offensive foul on another.
By the time most of the Zoo Crew members had gone back to their cages, the Mavs still led by 10 but the starters had been refreshed. Billups, Hamilton and Co. then came in and cut the lead to 48-43 going into halftime. While the Pistons' starters were unable to sustain the rally in the second half, culminating in a 102-86 defeat, the bench once again had done its job.
Nobody in Motown is saying it yet, but the feeling is that the bench might be the missing piece needed to get back to the NBA Finals. It's no secret that the team got tired in years past -- Detroit has reached five consecutive conference finals -- with the starters logging heavy minutes. This year no starter is averaging more than 35 minutes.
"No question there have been times over the last few years where it appeared that we were fatigued down the stretch," Dumars said.
This year, thanks to the Zoo Crew, the Pistons' starters just might have the legs for another title run.