After getting home from Game Two, the 97-91 win over Cleveland that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated, I tuned into the TNT broadcast of the Spurs – Mavericks series. Magic Johnson was a guest analyst and said that the Cavaliers comeback from 22 down to get within five points in the late going would “Give them confidence for Game Three,” and Magic was now willing to concede them one victory in the series.
Kenny Smith disagreed, calling the comeback an illusion that doesn’t fool anybody. In either case, Game Three becomes the Cavaliers World Series and Super Bowl. If they lose again, they’re looking at getting swept. If they win even one game against the Pistons they’ll feel much more strongly that their season was one of great growth.
In much the same way as Michael Jordan 20 years, LeBron James has given his team hope for a bright future. But he faces the same prospect Michael did in trying to overcome the dominant Bad Boys: How do we get past this 800-pound gorilla that looks to be a powerhouse for the next five years? It’s a discouraging thought. The Cavs know that one man can’t beat five, and making it to the second round still represents a major leap for the franchise. Like the Bucks in round one, the Cavaliers know what they’re up against – a team on a mission that will not be yielding ground to any upstarts. Forgive me for not being cold-hearted enough, but I hope the Pistons don’t totally humiliate them.
As the Pistons were on their way to a 30-point lead while clobbering the Cavaliers in Game One, I mentioned to the guys sitting next to me that this was bound to be the biggest blowout in Pistons playoff history. Eddie Rivero, a member of the basketball staff quickly said, “No, the Pistons once led the Bullets by 46.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I remember writing about that in “Blue Collar Blueprint.” On April 26 1987, the first year the old Bad Boys were of true championship caliber, they swept the Washington Bullets in the first round. In Game Two at the Silverdome, they led 73-36 as time was running out in the first half. The Pistons raced up court and with a second left, Isiah Thomas heaved a shot some 50 feet, from beyond mid-court, that swished in putting them ahead 76-36 on their way to a 128-85 victory.
After the game, Bullets coach Kevin Loughery was asked to share what he’d said to his team at the half. His gallows humor answer: “I don’t have a speech for 40 down.” Bullets guard Jeff Malone said of the Pistons that night, “They’re at a level we’re not even close to.”
Exactly a month later, in the Eastern Conference Finals, Isiah threw the worst pass in Pistons history – into Larry Bird’s hands in Boston, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ben Wallace received his fourth defensive player of the year award before Game Two and continues his legacy as one of the most unique players in NBA history. Game One was classic Ben as he scored only two points but was as key to the win as Rip Hamilton was in scoring 40. Flip Saunders put it perfectly when he said, "Ben has the ability to guard five guys on the court -- all five positions -- and sometimes he does it on one play."
Ben’s defensive excellence is really only his second most important commitment. The first is his commitment to the direction of the organization. Joe Dumars created the perfect cast to compliment Ben, who can work his defensive magic and not be concerned about scoring. His teammates continually pick him up in that regard and deep down, I’m sure Ben knows that it’s unlikely that he could be as comfortable anywhere else. The deepest running human emotion is the quest for significance. Ben’s goal is to win championships, and where better to achieve lasting significance than here?
Is Ben the modern day Bill Russell? Russell was here for Game Two and gave me a five-minute interview that I’ve enjoyed doing as much as any in my career. You’ll see it on our TV 20 pregame show Saturday at 4:30 before Game Three.
On another subject, I enjoyed New Jersey’s dismantling of Miami and Shaquille O’Neal in Game One of that series. Two years ago when the Pistons humiliated the favored Lakers in the NBA Finals, they showed that a cohesive team could destroy an agenda-laden group of players like those Lakers were. Kobe and Shaq had won championships together and might have gone on to win others, but their clash of egos drove them apart. Instead of dedicating themselves to becoming a rallying point for the Lakers return to greatness, they opted for autonomy and may never make the Finals again.
That’s why my other favorite playoff moment was when Kobe took just three shots in the second half of the Lakers Game Seven loss to the Suns and keen observer Charles Barkley called it, “selfish.” His point was that Kobe was trying to show everyone that the Lakers failure wasn’t his fault – it’s that his teammates simply can’t win without him. I was sitting next to Pistons CEO Tom Wilson at Game One vs. Cleveland and he made a great point, saying that Michael Jordan never would have gone down like that without swinging.
Michael eventually learned how to be a great teammate and was richly rewarded for it. Isn’t that what it’s all about in sports and life? Caring about those around you and wanting to make them better – and in the process making things better for yourself?
We witness that attitude often right here at the Palace of Auburn Hills.