After relinquishing home court advantage in Game 2 of The first round, the Detroit Pistons were trailing the Milwaukee Bucks 41-31 in Game 3. That's when spindly Tayshaun Prince took flight, blocking a fast break layup by 6'11" Toni Kukoc. Over the next 94 seconds, the small forward added a steal and scored all seven of the Pistons' points, sparking them to a pivotal 91-77 win and an eventual 4-1 series victory. Said coach Larry Brown, one of Prince's tougher critics, "I gave him two hugs tonight."
Detroit will need to squeeze even more out of Prince in this round if it hopes not to get ravaged by his matchup with Richard Jefferson. In four regular-season games Jefferson outscored Prince by an average of 21.5 to 5.3 points, outshot him 42.9% to 25.0% and outrebounded him 7.0 to 4.3. "I think in their locker room they're saying, 'Tayshaun cannot guard Richard Jefferson—let's attack him,' " said Detroit vice president of basketball operations John Hammond before the series. "I'm sure they feel they have the edge at that position."
The Pistons think Prince, who flourishes in the postseason, will rise to the challenge. After averaging 10.3 points and 4.8 rebounds during the regular season, Prince jumped to 17.4 and 7.6, respectively, in the first round. Given his breakthrough performance against the Philadelphia 76ers as a rookie in last year's Eastern semifinals, he is quickly establishing himself as one of those players who save their best for the biggest moments. With his quickness and 7'2" wingspan, Prince believes he can neutralize the explosive Jefferson. "I have to take it as a personal challenge to step up my defense and not let him get out on the break," says Prince, who notes that in his four years at Kentucky he raised his level of play during the NCAA tournament.
Prince's mental state will be crucial. Brown spent the first half of the season screaming at him to be more assertive. The turning point came in February when Prince was benched for lack of energy. He responded not only by shouting back at Brown during their ensuing practice squabbles but also by overcoming his quiet personality and taking more command—something that doesn't come naturally to the 24-year-old Prince. "He's so even-keeled," says point guard Chauncey Billups, "he's under the keel."
In Game 5 against the Bucks, Prince accentuated a stellar performance (24 points, nine rebounds and eight assists) with an angry outburst at the refs that shocked—and delighted—his teammates. His rugged play also helped soften criticism of the Pistons' decision to use the No. 2 pick in last year's draft on bench-riding Serbian big man Darko Milicic instead of Carmelo Anthony. Though Anthony would have displaced Prince in the starting lineup, Detroit's balanced attack could not have comfortably afforded Carmelo the 17.9 shots he averaged for the Nuggets this year. Says Hammond, "We still feel like we did the right thing."