The 122-93 Game Five elimination of Milwaukee was our last TV 20 game of the year. It’s feels a little strange because our role in the excitement ends just as the playoff energy gets a big boost with round two right around the corner.
Milwaukee wasn’t likely to win the series under any scenario, but it was still the fourth quarter of Game Four that changed the dynamic. Milwaukee had blown out the Pistons in Game Three and had made up a 15-point deficit to tie Game Four at 80-all. The Pistons led, 87-86, with 4:19 left, when Chauncey Billups hit a three-pointer. Next time down the court the Pistons moved the ball brilliantly and Billups found Rip Hamilton alone in the left corner. Rip was just 2-12 on the night, missing from everywhere. But he drilled the three-pointer to make it 93-86 and they never looked back. Billups went 8-8 from the line in the final minutes and the series was over except for the inevitable Game Five victory.
Before Game Five I asked Tony Delk to assess Billups scintillating performance. “We needed Chauncey to take over the game,” said Delk. “That’s what you expect from your best player.” The Bucks Charlie Bell went a step further. “Chauncey deserved the MVP over Kobe, LeBron and Nash. He’s the leader of the best team in the league.”
As I watched Rip Hamilton pour in 40 points in Game Five, I thought of his 4-14 in the previous game and how great shooters minds work. When they have off-nights they don’t say to themselves, “Uh-oh, I’ve lost my shot.” Instead they think, “I’m a 50% shooter, so keep firing, the makes are coming.” With his 15-23, Rip’s two- night total was 19-37, better than 50%. Obviously, his ankle is also feeling better which is key to their title hopes.
Hamilton has the most effortless form I’ve ever seen up close. He’s so fluid that for the first half second of every shot he takes I think, “It’s short,” before it floats through the hoop with minimal arc. He’s the Ernie Els of basketball. He’s so smooth that it’s looks like he isn’t putting enough behind it. If Game Five had been a close one, Rip would have broken Dave Bing’s team record of 44 points in a playoff game.
Here’s how I see the Pistons after a season of watching them day in and day out on the court, on the bus and at practice:
Ben Wallace: The Conscience. He started all of this and his work ethic and never-ceasing effort is the soul of the team.
Chauncey Billups: The General. He sets the table, calls the shots and directs the action. There is a coolness and composure about him that gives the team a sense of control at all times.
Rip Hamilton: The Gunner. Rip’s the whirling dervisg who’ll run you ragged and then shoot holes through you. If Tommy Hearns didn’t already own it, I’d call Rip the “Hitman” instead.
Rasheed Wallace: The Muscle. Although all the Pistons can take care of themselves, Rasheed is a menacing presence. You don’t want to anger him because he’ll either throw you to the ground or go on a scoring binge. He’s also the much needed extrovert among a very self-contained cast.
Tayshaun Prince: The Bow. Prince ties the ribbon on the perfect starting unit. Still needing a bit more consistency, Tayshaun benefits from playing with more experienced teammates. His package of low-key personality and well-rounded skills ideally meshes with a mature group of veterans.
Antonio McDyess, Lindsey Hunter, Tony Delk: Ultimate Support. McDyess finished fourth in the voting for sixth man, but if they had awards for 6-8, this trio is it. Lindsey told me the other day that none of them look for the individual accolades that young players want, and love playing within the character of a team seeking greatness.
Carlos Delfino and Maurice Evans just have to make the best of it. The minutes they need simply don’t exist for them on this team and there’s no answer for it. That’s why they fall into the Mike James, Mehmet Okur category – two guys who won a championship here in 2004 but needed to move on. Evans and Delfino are good players capable of starting elsewhere and a degree of frustration might be an inevitability for them in Detroit.
Even though I’ve covered sports for 30 years, this was the first team I got to travel with. And the thing that continually amazed me was that if I didn’t know the outcome of each game, I wouldn’t have been able to tell if they’d won or lost. They maintained a remarkable consistency of composure in all situations. Maybe that’s because when you play over a hundred games, avoiding large spikes in emotion helps keep you sane. But more than that, I think it’s because this is a big picture team built to make championship runs. They battle each night and then accept the results as part of the greater equation. Over-emotionalizing can only get you off track.
Anyway, I’ll admit that as much fun as I’ve had, it’s disappointing to have our TV games end to make room for the networks. It means I have to both literally and figuratively get off the bus at this point – right when the best stuff is just starting to happen.