For the Detroit Pistons, when 6'9" rookie forward Tayshaun Prince came off the end of the bench to score a career-high 20 points in a Game 7 first-round win over the Orlando Magic, it was the equivalent of putting on a pair of jeans and discovering $20 in the pocket. But by the end of their second-round victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, the Pistons were counting on a windfall every time they turned to Prince—and more often than not, he delivered.
Such reliance on an inexperienced player can be dangerous, however, and it came back to haunt Detroit on Sunday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, a 76-74 loss to the New Jersey Nets at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Prince played 36 minutes but contributed only seven points on 2-for-10 shooting, including five straight misses in the fourth quarter. That the Pistons kept going back to him despite his struggles underscored how much they need someone other than guards Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton to score. Whether Prince will succeed in that role, or whether New Jersey can neutralize him, may well determine which team reaches the Finals.
The Nets knew before the series started that Prince posed a unique challenge. Though he's a slight 215 pounds—his jersey looks as if it were draped on a clothes hanger—Prince has a 7-foot wingspan, three-point range, a variety of canny moves around the basket and the ability to handle the ball like a point guard. After being taken 23rd in the draft out of Kentucky, he averaged only 3.3 points in the regular season and didn't even get off the bench in 40 of Detroit's 82 games. But in the playoffs he has been the Prince of The Palace. He averaged 13.0 points against the 76ers, icing a 104-97 Game 2 victory with seven straight points at the end of regulation and in overtime. He also guarded everyone from 6'10" Keith Van Horn to 6-foot Allen Iverson. "One thing you never have to question about Tayshaun: He believes in what he can do," says Pistons forward Clifford Robinson. "He's been like that all year."
Before Sunday's tip-off, New Jersey guard Kerry Kittles laid out the team's Tayshaun Principles. "Be physical with him and remember he's a rookie," he said. "Make him catch the ball farther out on the wing and force him to his right so he can't get that middle post-up he likes." The Nets were also quick to help when Prince methodically backed in (something Philadelphia hadn't done), and during the fourth quarter they sicced forward Kenyon Martin on him. The stronger Martin leaned on Prince and twice during the game violently swatted his soft floaters, sternly warning after the first block that "this is a f—ing man's game!"
Afterward a glum Prince declined to credit the New Jersey defense. "I had good looks at the basket," he said. "They just didn't go down." A few lockers down Billups concurred. "He missed some shots today, but he'll make those next time," he said. Considering how much Detroit needs Prince, it sounded less like a prediction than a plea.