Wallace talks the talk, Billups walks the walk
INDIANAPOLIS -- Must be nice.
Rasheed Wallace stands 6 feet, 11 inches, but in issuing a de facto guarantee after the Pistons' Game 3 loss Friday night -- their second in a row -- the Detroit forward was not unlike that little loud-mouthed dude in the gang who's always talking noise and always ready to throw down, only because he knows he has his boys backing him up.
"I'm the megaphone of the team," Wallace said after the Pistons made good on his promise with an 89-76 victory at Conseco Fieldhouse that evened this East semifinal series at two games apiece. "I'll say what other people feel."
A lot of folks feel the Pistons have the game's best backcourt in point guard Chauncey Billups and shooting guard Richard Hamilton. They were the main guys who had Sheed's back Sunday. The duo combined for 42 points (a game-high 29 for Billups), 13 assists (seven by Hamilton), and eight rebounds.
When you're one-fifth of arguably the best starting five in the league and a year removed from winning the NBA title, you can say things such as "we're definitely going back to Detroit with this thing 2-2, no question about," with no hesitation because you know it's not all on you to back it up. Billups, last year's Finals MVP, can be the best player on the floor, and Hamilton is one of the league's rising stars, the possessor of the best midrange game in the game's history (hey, that's not me, that's Pacers coach Rick Carlisle).
So it wasn't really that risky for Wallace to bet that Billups, Hamilton and Ben Wallace -- the latter two especially -- would play better than they had in the previous two games. He'd been in enough battles with them to know they'd knuckle up.
"I know the character and the heart of the guys in that locker room," Wallace said. "It's answering the bell. We couldn't afford to go down 3-1 to this team."
"He'd be the first to tell you that his team backed him up," said Pistons coach Larry Brown. "I think I said the same thing to him prior to this game that I said prior to the game last year. I used some choice words. He guaranteed it and put us in position where we've got to help him. He's a great teammate. He was in the locker room after Games 2 and 3 taking all the blame for us losing. I'm not in favor -- I was embarrassed about [my critical comments regarding the officials] after Game 3 -- of saying things like that, but I think the team cares so much about him that everybody wanted to see it work out."
To his credit, Wallace played much better in this "guarantee game" than he did when he pulled this after Game 1 of last year's Eastern Conference Finals against Indiana. Last time he scored 10 points on 4-of-19 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds, though the Pistons still won. They also went on to win the series. Sunday, Sheed stepped up with 17 points (on 8-of-20 marksmanship) and 12 rebounds -- his first double-double since the playoff opener against Philly.
The most satisfying part for him was that he played waaaaay better in Game 4 then he did in Game 3, when he missed a pair of 3-pointers in the final minute. "I wasn't worth two cents last game," he said Sunday. "I couldn't hit shots to save my life."
So Wallace saved face, and Detroit has salvaged the series. No one can say the man is all talk. He got his licks in, so to speak. But the real knockout blows, they came from Billups.
Basically, he was brilliant.
He was at his best when things looked a bit bleak for the Pistons. With the Pacers leading 9-2 and Detroit's only bucket having come on a Sheed turnaround J, Billups scored three consecutive buckets to pull them to within a point, assisted on the next three Detroit baskets, and finally got a bank shot to go "and one" (Jamaal Tinsley couldn't handle him in the post). It was part of a 19-1 Detroit run in the first quarter that pretty much decided the game.
You see, Billups had already decided he wasn't going to continue trying to be what he isn't: a traditional, passing point guard. Sure, he can be that guy, but what he does best is score.
The Pistons are at their best offensively when Billups is on the offensive.
"I want Chauncey to shoot the ball," Brown said. "We talk about shot selection all the time. I've said this numerous times: 'We need to move the ball.' Sometimes you're talking to an individual, and you're not allowed to say their names, so when you say 'we,' sometimes the wrong guy gets the message. He's got to shoot open shots. He hurts us when he doesn't do that. When his feet are set, he's as effective as anybody. When he struggles is when we don't move the ball."
"I wanted to come out and play extra aggressive and combat any runs myself," Billups said. "I think our aggressiveness dictated the game and my team followed me.
"This is a three-game series now. The pressure is always going to be on us because we're the defending champions. The pressure isn't on them, they have nothing to lose. We're the kind of team that plays best when under pressure."
Billups did a bunch of things that tend to fly under the radar, too, like take a charge near halfcourt from Tinsley, frustrating the Pacers' point to where he slammed the ball and picked up a technical foul, too. My favorite? With eight minutes to go in the fourth, he recognized that the Pacers' big men are leaving their man to help Reggie Miller whenever Hamilton loses him coming off a screen. In this instance, James Jones lost Ben Wallace long enough for Billups to find him with a sweet pass that led to a dunk and an 18-point lead.
"I can't believe he hasn't been an All-Star," Carlisle said. "He can control the game from the point guard spot like few players can in this league. The second half, he really put his stamp on the game."
It remains to be seen whether history continues to repeat itself and the Pistons go on to eliminate the Pacers again following Wallace's guarantee. Thing is, it's one thing to guarantee one win, but if we've learned anything over two games and three days in Indianapolis, it's that there isn't anything definitive about this series.
Except that it is one.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.