Cliffy, Barry help make Stack's Pistons run

There is some talk that Stack won't play, or that Grant won't play, or that
neither will. Any of that happens, obviously, and they're going to have to
find another story line for Monday night's Pistons at Magic run.

Unless, on a Cliff note, we simply talk about Detroit. No matter who else is

Jerry Stackhouse vs. Grant Hill would be probably be spicy under any
circumstances, especially because they haven't met yet since the divorce,
but the Pistons have made the matchup intriguing in the team sense by
getting off to the better start. If the stars are healthy enough to go,
after both sat out Saturday's games with injuries, even better. If not, it's
no less a talker that there are traces of an actual team in Motown, as
opposed to Just Jerry.

While it's early still, and remembering that the Pistons faded after a
near-.500 start over 30 games last season, there has been enough evidence
already to suggest that Orlando won't be alone tonight in its
playoff-worthiness. Jerry's kids, since the 32-50 struggles of 2000-01, have
added the aforementioned Uncle Cliffy Robinson and Jon Barry and a rookie
named Rick Carlisle, who might win Coach Of The Month in the first month
he's eligible.

It's not like having Chris Webber, whom the Pistons hoped to score with all
their summer salary-cap space. But it's the best Detroit has been since Hill
and Doug Collins had the 1996-97 edition off to 10-1 launch and, eventually,
20-4, before Collins' inevitable meltdown and Hill's standard first-round
playoff exit.

"I'm not surprised that it's coming together," says Stack, who has missed
the bulk of Detroit's past three games because of a groin strain. "I knew it
had to come together eventually. But I didn't know that everything would
happen so quickly, especially on the defensive side of the ball. People are

The justification is ample. Detroit won seven of its first nine games,
losing only to Dallas and Portland in that start and beating the Mavericks,
Pacers and Raptors in the same stretch. The Pistons then lost a couple, to
Philadelphia and Atlanta, but only had Stack for only one full quarter in
those two games. Neither was a lopsided loss, either, meaning that Stack
might have easily made up the difference of five points against the Sixers
and seven on the night Shareef Abdur-Rahim went for 50.

At the very least, it was a bad night to be without your leading scorer, and
Reef's awakening stands as the only example so far -- with or sans Stack -- of
slack Pistons defending. Detroit has the league's third-stingiest D,
allowing just 89.0 points per, largely because of bushy-haired (or
cornrowed) Orlando alumnus Ben Wallace. Tough to describe Wallace as
underrated any more when his name shows up in the top 10 of three categories
-- rebounds (No. 8 at 11.0), blocks (No. 1 at 3.6) and steals (No. 5 at 2.0).

Swinging and missing badly on Webber, a Michigan man, was quite the slap for
Joe Dumars, who received little more than a courtesy visit from CWebb. But
the spurned Pistons were still in roomy position to benefit from luxury-tax
panic in Phoenix and Sacramento and absorbed Robinson and Jon Barry for
nothing essential.

Again, added up, those two aren't Webber, but they're tough, wizened pros
who have made Stack's life less of a strain (groin aside). Averaging roughly
seven fewer points and seven fewer shots than last season, Stackhouse is
still good for 21.7 points and a team-best 5.4 assists. Carlisle went to
Stack in the off-season and told him what he wanted to see from the All-Star
and Stack is providing everything that was requested, under control and
overtly mature.

Though the total package might not look as good as the old 29.8
points-per-game average, it no longer takes a commercial with Trey Wingo to
get Stack smiling and laughing happily.

"We've found some guys that really complement what we're trying to do, and
the things I do well like putting pressure on a defense and creating open
shots," Stack says. "Those guys [Robinson and Barry] are a little older,
guys I can draw from so it's not all the time guys drawing from me.

"I have no problem being the leader by example, but it's just nice sometimes
having someone else to do that, too. We basically lucked out."

There's more, too. Carlisle has restored Michael Curry, Dana Barros and
Corliss Williamson to favor, all of which means that Rodney White -- one of
the few June draftees expected to play immediately -- can't get off the
bench. And still Carlisle is trusting one rookie: Zeljko Rebraca, rookie
with an European asterisk at 29, is backing up Robinson and Wallace with
some more traditional center play (and a snazzy Eminem tint, to go with
Cliffy's headband and whichever look Wallace goes for).

There are bound to be some blips, of course, especially if Stack's groin
trouble lingers. Robinson and Wallace, however good together, can't carry
the offense like the captain can.

Folks wonder, too, about Carlisle's ability to placate players and already
he's dealing with a public mini-flap, having promoted Damon Jones to backup
point guard ahead of Chucky Atkins when the Pistons were in the midst of
that 7-2 start. In this case, fortunately for Carlisle, Atkins isn't one of
his main guys, so it's really more of a wannabe controversy. There's also
this: Carlisle made the right move, given that Jones is a deep threat and a
bigger body a better contrast to Barros.

Stackhouse insists that there won't be problems with Carlisle if he can help
it. He doesn't need a new coach to make it clear that all the talk about
shooting too much and feuding with Hill and being difficult won't go away
until the Pistons string some wins together after April.

"It's been good with Rick," Stack said. "And he didn't try to start all this
at the beginning of the season. We've had contact ever since he got the job.
We've had running conversations about how we feel about things, and he
didn't only do that with me.

"I think it's starting to be our time again -- maybe the second side of the
Bad Boys era. Things going in cycles, and we've been down for a while.

"I know that you have to be one of those teams playing in May or June to
gain your credit or your reputation or whatever you want to call it. That's
just got to be the focus for me."

Not a November grudge match with Grant.

Around The League

  • So let me understand this correctly. Eric Piatkowski -- yes, Eric
    Piatkowski -- is among those fined by David Stern's fashion police for
    wearing too-long shorts, presumably because long shorts send a bad message
    to the public. But Pike's boss, Donald T. Sterling, goes unpunished for
    helping the Clippers' likely rival for No. 8 in the West (Phoenix) snag Bo
    Outlaw. If you missed that three-team trade, Orlando offered Outlaw to the
    Clippers directly ... only for The Donald to decide that it'd be better to
    shave a little more off the league's lowest payroll and funnel Outlaw on to
    a West rival struggling with its defense and energy.

  • Told you so. Told you Houston was wildly entertaining. We told you to
    check back in a week to see if they were still surprising us and, yup, they
    still are. Never expected the Rockettes to whack the Mavericks by 36 ...
    then lose at Sacramento by 37 ... then win at Portland ... then lose
    back-to-backers on the road to the Sonics and Clips. Of course, Houston's
    entertainment value is tied to the severity of Steve Francis' foot injury.
    If it's serious, they'll naturally go on a serious slide.

  • Oklahoma City has a new arena opening in April, already paid for, and
    undeniable interest in the Hornets. But the only cities that seem to be on
    Charlotte's radar are Louisville, Norfolk, St. Louis and Charlotte itself.

  • Memphis did not turn down Jim Jackson to replace Michael Dickerson, as
    suggested. Jackson balked, even though no other team has gone near him,
    figuring that a non-guaranteed contract with the 28th-best team in the
    league wasn't going to do much for a pockmarked resume.

  • If the Mavericks
    have an All-Star so far, it's not Dirk Nowitzki or Michael Finley. Try Steve
    Nash, who, along with Houston's Francis, looks ready to pounce on potential
    West backcourt openings with Kidd gone and John Stockton toiling for an
    off-key Jazz.

  • For your calendars, Palm Pilots, etc.: MAILMAN VS. COACH, The Sequel --
    also known as Utah at New Jersey -- is Dec. 22. Didn't check with Al
    Bernstein but, from here, it's safe to say Mail has the Tale O' The Tape
    edge. The X Factor: Mail's foe (Byron Scott) is a lot younger than the last
    time (Don Nelson).

  • For the record: Stackhouse reiterates that he and Hill weren't "the two
    most compatible people around," but that "it's hardly the rift people are
    trying to make it out to be." Hill, still waiting for his body to make it
    possible to play his old team for the first time, has similarly dismissed
    the notion that there will be any bad blood in advance of Monday's matchup
    in Orlando. Hill reports: "My wife keeps telling me, 'Grant, at some point,
    you have to get over the past and move on.' " Besides, if either one of them
    sits, there won't be much spark for rough stuff. The only other Pistons who
    were there with Hill are Curry and Mikki Moore.

    Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular
    contributor to ESPN.com