Bad boys are back! read a visiting fan's sign at Indiana's Conseco Fieldhouse on Sunday night, when the Detroit Pistons moved to within a game of their first NBA Finals since 1990. An intriguing notion, to be sure, what with the return of Detroit's blue-and-red uniforms to early June and the defense that had become the league's most intimidating, but let's not get ahead of ourselves: These are not your daddy's (or Isiah's) Pistons. How quickly people forget that the original Bad Boys exhibited their nasty streak at both ends of the court, racking up more than 100 points a game; today's group needs two overtimes to break that threshold.
It was all Detroit could do on Sunday to amass enough baskets to claim a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals over the Pacers. After getting blown out at home 83-68 last Friday, the Pistons went scoreless for almost five minutes during a close second quarter of Game 5. That's when 6'7" shooting guard Richard (Rip) Hamilton came to the rescue, pouring in 24 of Detroit's next 29 points to help open up a decisive 55-43 lead. To Pistons coach Larry Brown, Hamilton must have seemed a taller, gentler and more reliable version of Allen Iverson—a fitting trade-up after Brown's six embattled years in charge of the Philadelphia 76ers. "[The playoffs are] when stars are made," said point guard Chauncey Billups after helping set up Hamilton for a career-playoff-high 33 points in the 83-65 victory. "And he's becoming a star."
That's what Detroit G.M. (and former Bad Boy) Joe Dumars had in mind when he acquired Hamilton in a controversial six-player trade that sent All-Star guard Jerry Stackhouse to the Washington Wizards in 2002. While Hamilton has had a high profile since 1999, when he scored 27 points to lead UConn to the national championship, this postseason has answered the biggest question about his pro prospects: Can his bony 193-pound frame hold up to the most withering kind of NBA pounding? With increasing intensity as the playoffs progressed, the Milwaukee Bucks, the New Jersey Nets and the Pacers have elbowed, tripped, grabbed and banged Hamilton in an effort to disrupt his relentless sprinting through the lane and around screens. Yet in each round his scoring has risen; through five games against Indiana he was averaging 24.2 points—6.6 more than he did in the regular season—on 46.0% shooting.
"He never wears down," says Billups. "Teams put a beating on him, and we're picking him up five or six times a game, but Rip never gets tired. He's like Iverson in that way."
Like Iverson, Hamilton excels at moving without the ball—"I never take a possession off," Rip says—which makes him the ideal catalyst to spark the Pistons' often-stagnant half-court offense. To get open he zips and darts and bounces around the court like Barry Sanders crisscrossing the field; once he catches the ball, his release is as quick and accurate as Dan Marino's. Having demonstrated that they're unable to keep up with him, Indiana's Reggie Miller and Ron Artest should not be surprised that Hamilton has been a sub-five-minute miler since his days at Coatesville (Pa.) Area High and that his favorite summer shooting drills involve full-court dashes between attempts. "Otherwise," says Hamilton, 26, "it's boring."
Detroit's big issue for the remainder of the Eastern finals was the health of Rasheed Wallace, whose plantar fasciitis in his left foot subsided enough to allow him to score 22 points on Sunday. The Pistons needed him active at the offensive end to take pressure off Hamilton and create space for Billups, who had shot a disappointing 38.6% in the postseason at week's end. Only then could they hope to live up to their Bad Boys legacy—and, if they made the Finals, bring a welcome touch of menace to that series as well.