Tayshaun Prince is
significantly improved from '04, his first year as a starter. The rationale
Dumars always uses when asked why he chose Darko Milicic instead of
high-scoring Carmelo Anthony in the 2003 draft is that he already had a Prince
of a small forward. Given the surrounding cast, is there any doubt that Prince,
Detroit's most consistent player through the first four games of the Chicago
series (he averaged 19.8 points, 8.3 rebounds), is a better fit for this team
than Anthony would have been?
As for Rasheed
Wallace, the Music Man, he is the fulcrum upon which the Pistons often turn.
Though he too often defers to his teammates on offense, he is capable of taking
over games. And he is the only 6'11'' player in the league who can post up,
then go out and calmly drain three-pointers.
Pistons without Big Ben are not as good a man-to-man team; they surrendered 1.6
points per game more this season than last. But they more than compensate with
what Saunders calls his HPTFZ defense--the Hyperbolic, Paraboloid, Transitional
Floating Zone. Saunders wanted to use it last year, but Ben Wallace resisted
because he preferred to play man. It's a basic 3--2 matchup, but considering
that the 6'9" Prince and his freakish 7'2" wingspan occupy the middle
spot on the perimeter most of the time, there is nothing basic about it.
"Tayshaun is my Garnett," says Saunders, who first used the defense
with the Timberwolves, installing 6'11" Kevin Garnett up top. "Agile,
long arms, smart and wants to play it." The zone is so intimidating--in
Game 3 the Bulls got about three good looks at the basket in the second half,
scoring just 30 points--that sometimes after made baskets the Pistons fake it.
They wait downcourt for the offense to arrive, hands held high, bouncing on
their toes, as if they're about to employ the HPTFZ. The offense frantically
shifts gears to go against a zone, perhaps eschewing a high pick-and-roll, only
to discover that Detroit is actually in a man-to-man.
The fact that
Saunders was able to institute his HPTFZ speaks to the firmer hold he has on
the team. The zone is Saunders's baby, and he was hesitant to use it last
season because he was still feeling his way. The Pistons as presently
constituted will never be easy to coach--execs, coaches and teammates can talk
all night about what a wonderful player Rasheed Wallace is, but he still loses
concentration during games, as he did in Game 4, and frequently hurts the team
with his outbursts--and the players will never do backflips over Flip. But he
has their attention. "After Larry Brown left, these guys wanted to show
that they didn't even need a coach," says a member of the Pistons'
hierarchy. "I don't think it was until March of this year that they really
got on the same page with Flip. Now they're all together."
The best thing the
Pistons have going for them, though, is the same hard-edged attitude they
showed in '04, a legacy from the Bad Boys. They seem fueled by a collective
distemper. Virtually every whistle that goes against them is met with
exasperation and disbelief. Rasheed Wallace has been the league's
technical-foul champ for three years running (he had 21 this season), and
Hamilton, whose plastic face mask hides a persistent frown, tied Suns center
Amar� Stoudemire for second this year with 15. Prince appears as if he bears
the weight of the world on his narrow shoulders. Billups is all business. And
if you look closely, the smile that Webber flashes from time to time is
actually a smirk; although he arrived from the Philadelphia 76ers only in
January, as a Michigan native weaned on the Bad Boys, he's a perfect fit.
The Pistons are
not just an in-your-face team; they're an in-each-others'-faces team. It's not
uncommon for Billups and Hamilton, the league's most coordinated backcourt
combo, to holler and angrily gesture at each other on the court, or for Wallace
to flap his arms and rail against a teammate for a missed assignment. "We
get mad at each other for maybe a minute," says Billups, "then it's
over." During a film session last Saturday the entire team goofed on
Hamilton when a clip showed him looking for his shot despite the presence of
four defenders. Saunders once preferred to be a "general criticizer"
rather than single someone out; on Sunday he said that Hamilton "blew"
a defensive assignment that allowed Bulls guard Ben Gordon a wide-open three
with 3:19 left that salted the game away.
The calling-out of
players is a legacy of Brown's. "L.B. always held the individual, not the
team, accountable, and we do the same thing," says Billups. "Instead of
saying, 'We gotta move the ball better,' we say, 'Chauncey, quit f---ing around
with the ball,' or, 'Rasheed, you're being lazy, let's get it together.' We're
veterans. We can handle it."
But can the
Pistons handle the challenge as well as they did in 2004? The play of DJ Sheed
will go a long way to determine whether Detroit can get back to being Title
Town or will settle for being merely Funkytown.
Was there a silver
lining in the Pistons' loss at Chicago on Sunday, their first of the
postseason? Of the six other teams that started 7--0, five won the title; of
the four that went 8--0 or better, only two did.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]