Neither Thomas nor Tripucka would have it any other way. "I've never been the kind of player who would back down and hide in the corner saying, 'Please don't pass the ball to me,' " says Tripucka. "I'd rather be taking the big shots. I've been doing it for a long time. Why stop now?"
"That's the way I have to play," says Thomas. "I'd be terrible if I were allowed to just go through the motions. It's my job to make sure everyone else on the floor is doing the right thing. And if I'm not right, I can't make them be right either."
Thomas has pushed his scoring up to 22.8 points a game this season while still averaging 7.3 assists. He was scoring at about the same clip at a similar time last year, but his average and attitude plummeted during a falling-out with Robertson. "I'd never done things the way he wanted them done," Thomas says. "I'd always felt I played an all-round game: scoring, passing, playing defense. But it seemed he wanted me to change my priorities: pass the ball, play defense and then, maybe, score. For a time I felt one-dimensional on the offensive end of the court, just penetrating and dishing off. It was like part of my game was taken away from me. Now I know how he wants things done. I'm a little smarter, a little more mature. But he's relaxed a bit more too."
Tripucka has also learned to relax, although you couldn't tell it from his nonstop motion on the court. "Every time I walked out on a floor last season I felt I had to prove one thing or another," he says. "People were second-guessing me and my ability to the point where I felt like I wasn't allowed to have a bad game. Now it's a whole different world out there. I'm relaxed game in and game out. The statistics may not be as good as last season but my productivity has increased."
Actually, Tripucka's stats have improved; he's playing 38.2 minutes a game and averaging 25.7 points, enough to stifle any critics. Although Tripucka had an 18-point regular-season average and some impressive performances in postseason all-star games following his senior year at Notre Dame, some people in the NBA questioned whether he would be a factor in the league. Too slow, too in-between, too ordinary.
Tripucka says, "First I wasn't good enough, then I didn't score 30 points a game at Notre Dame. Still, I always felt I could play whatever game a team wanted to play—slowdown, fast break, whatever. Ever since Adrian Dantley, people just don't score much at Notre Dame; you play 26 minutes a game, take 10 to 15 shots and play team ball."
That formula was good enough for Tripucka's teammate on the Irish, Laimbeer, who has never really worried about being a star. The son of what he calls "a vice-president of a very large corporation [Owens-Illinois]," Laimbeer isn't over-serious about the game. "There have always been other options available to me. Basketball is just a game," he says.
After an undistinguished year and a half with the Cleveland Cavaliers, it appeared that the 25-year-old center would have to fall back on one of those other options. Then last Feb. 16, only nine minutes before the end of the league's trading deadline, Laimbeer was sent to Detroit. Since his acquisition, the Pistons have had a 23-17 record. "I've always felt that my time was my time, whether I wanted to travel or fish or just lie around and do nothing," says Laimbeer. "Basketball never entered into it. But after I came here last season and everyone showed such confidence in me, I felt I had to do something to repay them."
Laimbeer reported to the Cavaliers' camp at 280 pounds a year ago but weighed in at a relatively svelte 254 this fall, the result of "touching a basketball between the last game and the first practice for the first time since junior high school." Thus far, Laimbeer has averaged almost 13 points and 12 rebounds a game. "I don't know about the future, but this year I want to do something, like be a top-10 rebounder," he says. "Everyone has said I can't do this or that. I want to show them I can."
So do the rest of the Pistons. Although to a man they downplayed the Milwaukee game beforehand, they saw it as an indication of how far the team had come—or how far it had to go. Not only would the Pistons be judged by the Bucks but also by the Detroit fans.