2003 NBA Finals 2003 NBA Finals

Deep thoughts

Pistons' plethora of parts has a skeptic convinced

Posted: Saturday May 17, 2003 12:15 AM

By John Hollinger,

Call me converted.

I've doubted the Pistons all season. It wasn't clear where the offense was coming from, especially with two starters (Michael Curry and Ben Wallace) who were lucky to combine for double figures, let alone get it by themselves. They had struggled in the second half of the season, much like their Eastern Conference finals opponents in New Jersey. And they needed the new best-of-seven format just to make it out of the first round against an Orlando "team" that was more of a one-man band.

But the amazing thing about the Pistons has been their ability to constantly pull productive players off their endless bench. Just when it looked like Clifford Robinson's customary playoff gag job would help them lose to Orlando, in came Mehmet Okur to perform the Heimlich. And when it seemed their matchups at small forward were inadequate, Tayshaun Prince was taken out of cold storage to become a playoff hero.

Fouls accumulated by Philadelphia's Monty Williams in 10 minutes of torture trying to guard Detroit's Corliss Williamson. Sixty-one fouls were whistled in the game.
"I just flat-out sucked. I haven't played this bad since I was a rookie, and I don't think I was that bad as a rookie."
-- Robert Horry of the Lakers, who missed all 18 of his 3-point attempts against the Spurs.
What was the real reason Allen Iverson showed up late for Game 6?

Add it all up and a team totally devoid of superstar talent is in the conference finals despite injuries to their two best players. Ben Wallace hurt his knee just before his playoffs and wasn't really himself until Game 5 against Philadelphia. Chauncey Billups sprained an ankle in Game 1 against the Sixers and didn't re-emerge until his sparkling performance to win Game 6.

But those injuries were masked by the Pistons' awesome bench. Thanks to the work of GM Joe Dumars, the Pistons are so deep they can essentially pick and choose their guys based on matchups.

Take Friday, for instance. Jon Barry, one of the best reserve guards in the league, was deemed unecessary because Rick Carlisle realized he could play Prince as Richard Hamilton's sub at shooting guard instead. That opened room for last year's Sixth Man winner, Corliss Williamson, who despite his impressive resumé hadn't received more than 10 minutes of burn in any of the past eight games. He responded by abusing the 76ers for 17 points in 25 minutes.

The Pistons got some breaks, to be sure. If Iverson made those free throws in Game 2, or if Eric Snow's clean strip on Billups wasn't erroneously called a foul in Game 6, we'd be looking at a showdown on Sunday for the right to face New Jersey. (And on a related note, would it kill the league to stop giving Bennett Salvatore plum assignments?)

But those ifs on the 76ers' side don't make up for the one big if from the Pistons' side: If Detroit's two best players were healthy, we might have been done in four. Few other teams can withstand such a decline in production from their top two and live to tell about it. Impressively, Detroit did.

So the Pistons don't have the superstar talent we're used to seeing in conference championship teams. They're built more on the lines of recent deep, big teams like Indiana or Portland. David Stern is probably praying they don't make it to the Finals; selling viewers on a team with 10 interchangeable parts tends to go against the league's marketing M.O.

But with the emergence of Prince at small forward and Okur up front, these Pistons are the best team in the East. I didn't believe it all season. But after Friday, there's not a doubt in my mind.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Stud: Chauncey Billups, G, Pistons
Billups overcame an ankle sprain to account for 11 of the Pistons' 12 points in overtime, including the game-winning 3-pointer. That was after his foul shots tied the game in regulation. He also did all the team's laundry, composed a sonnet, and changed Rick Carlisle's oil.
Dud: Keith Van Horn, F, 76ers
He was going to show the Nets that they made a big mistake blaming him for their playoff failures. Oops. Van Horn's two-point, six-foul performance Friday capped a series where he hit double figures just once in six games and had zero blocks.
John Hollinger is the basketball editor for

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