By Royce Webb
Fourth And Goal(s) For Pistons
Last season, the Detroit Pistons won 54 games and went to the NBA Finals, giving the Spurs a very tough seven-game series.
How these two teams responded in the summer to their disappointment is one of the stories of the young NBA season so far. It certainly was the story of the game on Thursday night, in Detroit's thrilling 111-104 come-from-behind win in Phoenix to keep the Pistons as the NBA's only undefeated team, at 5-0.
The Suns decided that improving by 33 games, leading the NBA in scoring and generally setting the basketball world on its ear wasn't enough for them. They also had to be bigger, tougher, stronger . . . and slower. They decided that at the end of the game, players like Kurt Thomas and Brian Grant would take them further than Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson.
So, toward the end of the loss to the Pistons, coach Mike D'Antoni dutifully followed suit.
At the 6:07 mark, he removed dynamo Leandro Barbosa, who had scored 21 points in 21 minutes to lead the Suns, bringing in Raja Bell, who promptly proceeded to become a nonfactor, taking neither a shot nor the responsibility of helping Steve Nash make plays.
Likewise, D'Antoni told point forward Boris Diaw to grab some pine at 4:03, right after he made his sixth assist, and put in Grant, who found himself comically undersized against the Pistons' mammoth frontline. So much for getting bigger and better.
No doubt the loss of Amare Stoudemire is the biggest reason the Suns are 2-3, and you have to admire the fact that they are still running and leading the league in scoring. But when they decided that they needed to slow down at the ends of games and match up size for size against the Spurs and Pistons of the world, they undermined what was special about PHX ball -- their willingness to push the ball, do or die.
Meanwhile, it was a superb victory for the Pistons, who are suddenly the best team in basketball again. They played methodically -- almost apathetically -- for three quarters, and trailed by eight entering the fourth quarter. But in the final five minutes, they turned a six-point deficit into a seven-point win with a series of stops, steals and big shots.
In a three-minute stretch, the Pistons got a 3 from Rasheed Wallace to tie the game at 102, and then three consecutive jumpers from Rip Hamilton, Hamilton again and Chauncey Billups, Mr. Big Shot himself, to put Phoenix away, while the Suns were scoring only a single basket on the other end. It was classic De-troit Bas-ket-ball.
The Pistons' offseason was, on the surface, a noisy one, with coach Larry Brown clattering around and finally finding the exit door he seemed to be looking for all spring. But new coach Flip Saunders is Brown's temperamental opposite, a calm leader who ultimately seems a better fit for the franchise's quiet professionalism.
In keeping with Saunders' personality, the Pistons' style of play has seen mostly subtle changes. Saunders has opened up the offense a bit, and instituted some new zone defenses, but these are still the Pistons you've come to know and love (or loathe, as the case may be).
After losing to the Spurs, the Pistons decided they were happy being who they are -- or, as Hamilton famously chanted last June after the Pistons eliminated the Miami Heat, "That's what we do!" And what they still do is play D and ride the NBA's best starting five as far as they can.
We're only five games in, with 77 to go, so it's too early for firm conclusions. But so far you have to respect the Pistons' steadfast response to last season more than the Suns' response, and the fourth quarter last night demonstrated why.
AP Photo/Matt York
Suns guard Steve Nash split the "Red Rover" defense of Richard Hamilton, left, and Chauncey Billups. But it was the two Pistons' hot shooting (17-27 FG combined) that broke the Suns.
Injuries always play a part in determining champions. Every NBA team deals with loss throughout the grueling demands of an 82-game season. Whether a team can withstand that loss depends on the magnitude of the player involved. It's fair to say that some of the teams that can be expected to have an impact deep into the postseason cannot be judged until their stars return to the lineup.
Three contenders. Three superstars. When they return, and play themselves into game shape, the natural order of balance will be restored. Until then, let the Pistons, Pacers, and Spurs sit alone at the top. Let the Bucks, Warriors, Lakers, Wizards, and Jazz be invited to the party. The head table will get a lot more crowded once the other guests of honor arrive.
For now, though, each of these teams have adjustments to make to stay afloat.
The Heat are not only adjusting to the loss of the Diesel, they are also incorporating four new players (Jason Williams, Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, and James Posey) into the rotation. As a result, Dwyane Wade must take on a bigger leadership role in terms of directing the offense, taking big shots, and making believers out of the newcomers in Stan Van Gundy's capabilities. Without O'Neal this will be a perimeter oriented team. Based on the consistency of the guys being asked to launch those jumpers, that could be a dicey proposal.
The Rockets without T-Mac are a below average team. He is the only playmaker on their roster. Not only is he capable of carrying a team with his scoring, he is also the primary ball handler and decision maker in the half court. Yao Ming will be asked to be dominant and, frankly, he isn't ready for that. He may never be ready. He may just end up being a very good center capable of being the best player on the floor on a given night. The problem is that he can't yet do it consistently. Jeff Van Gundy's defense will keep them in most games, but they won't have a finisher to make plays when it matters most.
Of the three teams missing their star player, the Phoenix Suns have the best chance of keeping their head above water until Stoudemire returns. Why? I believe in their system. They are a very difficult team to defend in the regular season because their opponents are ready for the relentless pressure they inflict on the offensive end of the floor. Steve Nash is capable of picking up the scoring load and setting the table for Shawn Marion, Jim Jackson, Raja Bell, and James Jones. They can run, shoot, and share the ball.
Where they will miss Stoudemire the most will be the loss of the best frontcourt athlete in the NBA beating big men down the court and occupying wing defenders, thus freeing the Suns' perimeter players for open threes.
-- Tim Legler
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Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images
When confronted with an outstretched Yao, Dwyane Wade wisely considered his options. He had seven assists, and his 25 points led the Heat to a 88-84 home victory over the Rockets, and the .500 mark.
Quote of the Night
-- Andrew Ayres
Is it too early to get excited about the 5-1 Clippers, who quietly have the best record in the West? In a word, yes. Two of their six games have been against the winless Hawks, including Thursday's 102-95 win in Atlanta, and L.A. hasn't faced a major contender yet.
Nonetheless, their strong start is encouraging. Sam Cassell is orchestrating the offense and providing impromptu on-court coaching sessions for his younger teammates. Elton Brand has shined -- he's shooting over 60 percent from the floor and Thursday was his fourth straight game with at least 23 points. And, despite some ill-chosen flings from Corey Maggette Thursday, the feared chemistry issues haven't materialized.
But if you're looking for a real test for L.A., wait til the end of the month. That's when the Clips' cupcake run ends and they face Denver, Indiana, Minnesota, Cleveland (twice) and Miami in succession.
-- John Hollinger in Atlanta
The Heat defeated the Rockets 88-84 with Alonzo Mourning making his fourth consecutive start in place of injured Shaquille O'Neal. It was only the second time that Mourning started against Yao Ming. The first was last November when Mourning held Yao to six points on 3-of-11 shooting and two rebounds in 22 minutes -- but the Rockets beat the Nets, 80-69. This time, Yao scored 24 points with 14 rebounds in 33 minutes, but shot 1-for-4 in the fourth quarter.
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His So-Called Career
Basketball vagabond Paul Shirley chatted with ESPN.com users Thursday. A sample:
Zach (Boulder, CO): Should someone start a campaign to get you back into the NBA? Wouldn't a team consider picking you up if they were barraged with angry emails asking why you weren't on their team?
Mike (Philly): Going back in time, in what year would your current skills translate into a starter in the NBA?
Utah's rookie point guard Deron Williams is looking like a veteran with his physical play and decision making. Eventually, Williams will be the starter and the Jazz' season may rest upon how well he can handle the rigors of an 82-game season at such a demanding position.