- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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This is the real head-scratcher in Motown: Ben Wallace believes that he "jumps a little higher" when his hair is blown all the way out in full fro.
"Makes me feel lighter on my feet," he shares.
Rhetorical Question Alert: If that's so, Big Ben, then why would you ever braid it down?
It's far less a mystery, meantime, to figure out and pinpoint the myriad reasons the Detroit Pistons lost three of the first seven games they played this season.
In no particular order:
(1) Larry Brown missed all but two of those games, and as one rival coach told me, "Not having Larry on their asses is probably worth 10 points a game to the opponent."
(2) The Pistons were down to one Wallace in two of their defeats, which reminded us all that Detroit didn't start playing championship basketball last season until it could field a Wallace tag team every night.
(3) Big Ben still hasn't explained himself on the hair thing, but he did concede after Wednesday's that's-more-like-it victory over Minnesota that, well . . . "it happened."
A start-the-season letdown after shocking the world and winning the title.
"We said it wouldn't happen," Wallace admitted, "but we're human."
There shouldn't be a hint of a letdown Friday night at the Palace, with the Indiana Pacers visiting in a rematch (ESPN, 8 p.m.) of the rivals' grinding Eastern Conference finals showdown from last spring. Wednesday's meeting with Kevin Garnett snapped Detroit back into focus and an early encounter with the Pacers only figures to lock the Pistons in even more, since both teams know the cost associated with finishing second in the Central Division. Thanks to realignment, chances are the No. 2 team in the Central will be facing the division winner in the second round of the playoffs . . . and without the home-court advantage. As a result, even a pre-Thanksgiving matchup is critical for both teams.
Joe Dumars, mind you, doesn't sound terribly worried, about this game specifically or the Pistons' so-so launch. He chuckles at the What's Wrong With Detroit talk, remembering that Detroit's title teams of 1989 and 1990 started 3-3 and 4-2 in the seasons after winning it all.
"And we were 16-13 after 29 games last season," Dumars reminds. "We've played only two games this season with our full complement of players and coaches."
And won both of those impressively, holding Houston (on Opening Night) and the Timberwolves to a more Detroit-like average of 82 points allowed on 40.4-percent shooting.
"I understand that we're not always going to be able to walk out onto the court and play our best ball," Dumars said. "But as long as we're getting better as the season goes forward, I'm OK."
Gar Heard had a torrid time as the fill-in coach, taking over the club in just his second official game with Detroit because Brown needed hip surgery . . . and with Ben leaving the team for two games after the death of his brother . . . and with Chauncey Billups missing a game and a half after turning his ankle. In Heard's five-game stint, Detroit suffered road defeats at Toronto, Denver and Utah, and barely escaped the Clippers in double-OT. The greater shock, though, can be found in these numbers: 102.6 points per game allowed under Heard on 47.2-percent shooting.
Two rough weeks haven't changed the fact that these Pistons should be a deeper crew than the title-winning squad. Corliss Williamson, Mehmet Okur and Mike James are gone, true, but none of those guys played major roles in the Finals against the Lakers. Antonio McDyess and Carlos Delfino can be just as good, if not better, as the top reserves, and I haven't abandoned hope that Brown will eventually stop being so stubborn and start playing Darko Milicic a steady 10-15 minutes a night. As important as winning is, so is building up the kid's confidence. It's time, Lar.
Yet if there's an issue that seriously impacts the Pistons' repeat chances, it figures to be the way games are being called now. When you see Detroit giving up 117 points to the struggling Nuggets, you have to believe it was more than the absences of Larry, Ben and Chauncey (down the stretch). You have to wonder whether Commissioner Stern's determination to rid the sport of hand and arm contact on the perimeter is going to cause Detroit long-term problems.
"All teams are having to adjust," Dumars counters. "Not just us. We're still going to go out and play tough man-to-man defense."
A scout who has seen the Pistons more than once already concurs. "They'll adjust," the scout said. "They'll crank it up when they need to. It's hard to play Detroit's style of defense all year long, but those guys are pros."
Those guys aren't panicking, that's for sure. Those guys don't even want to challenge Big Ben on his hair theory. If it were my team, I'd make the fro mandatory, but Joe D says no way.
"Who's going to tell him he can't wear it the other way?" Dumars said.
LINE ITEMS ...
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Thanks to Freddy Adu, our man Darko Milicic is now the seventh-youngest member of a championship team in the history of American team sports. Adu is a 15-year-old striker with Major League Soccer's D.C. United; Darko was 18 years and 361 days old when Detroit finished off the Lakers in five games last June.