The whistle blew, charging Michael Curry with his fourth foul, and Tracy McGrady haughtily strode away from the action, his body language asking what anyone watching must have been asking themselves: Who can stop me?
This was McGrady at his peak. His 32.1 points per game were more than any other player in the league -- more, in fact, than any other player since then except two: Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson, both in the 2005-06 season -- and the only thing he seemed to enjoy more than scoring was letting everyone around him know when he did.
His 43 points led the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic to a win in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Detroit Pistons, and his seven straight points in Game 2, for a total of 30, had cut the Pistons' lead to 12, with three more to come after he snuck the ball under and into Curry's outstretched arm to manufacture a trip to the line.
Tayshaun Prince, the Pistons' gangly 22-year-old rookie, hadn't played a minute in the game. He didn't play a minute in the game before. In the regular season, he averaged just over 10. But with the Pistons' "defensive specialist" now in foul trouble and their top-ranked defense in danger of letting another avalanche of McGrady points overwhelm them, second-year coach Rick Carlisle made the switch with 4:45 to go in the third quarter.
Prince contributed sparingly in his first NBA season after four successful years at Kentucky, with averages of 3.3 points and one rebound to show for 45 games played, and his discomfort with the postseason stage was apparent in his first possession: He faded so far out from the right 3-point arc while watching Chauncey Billups isolate that he appeared halfway to the midcourt line.
But on defense, he was challenged immediately. McGrady, full of vigor, attacked with 20 seconds on the shot clock, only to be impeded coming off a screen by the muscle-bound Ben Wallace, the reigning defensive player of the year.
With 13 seconds left on the shot clock, McGrady called and received the ball again in almost the same spot. Darrell Armstrong sped toward him to set a pick on Prince but was waved off. With Prince's eyes locked on him, McGrady took a quick dribble to his right, toward a Drew Gooden pick, crossed over to his left and sprang into the air just in front of the arc.
Perfect lift. Perfect form. Perfect snap of the wrist. Perfect arc. The shot matches the first image that comes to mind when you think of McGrady in his prime.
But as the ball hit its apex, it sank, as though it had been shot dead in midair. Instead of zipping through the rim like the three 3-pointers before it, the ball fell inches short, right into Wallace's outstretched right hand.
Prince's rail-thin left arm had gotten a piece of it.
McGrady missed his next three shots. The Pistons pulled away for good.
"Maybe now we have to call Tayshaun Prince the T-Mac stopper,'' then-Magic coach Doc Rivers said afterward.
But those Detroit days, a 33-year-old Prince said recently, are "long gone now."
In today's NBA, only six players have spent over a decade with one team.
Before Jan. 30, 2013, the list was seven.
Less than a month after his first playoff appearance, Prince entered the starting lineup for good, replacing Curry in Game 2 of the 2003 Eastern Conference finals against the New Jersey Nets. Over the next decade, he appeared in 830 games for the Pistons and started in 828, 103 of which coming in the postseason.
Prince fit in Detroit. While his offense was limited, his sharp basketball mind and long limbs bolstered the team's tough, defense-first identity, and as a 23rd pick in the draft, he quickly bonded with a core comprised primarily of misfits and castaways brought in through unheralded trades and signings. Together, they advanced to six straight conference finals and two straight NBA Finals and won the 2004 championship.
At A Glance: Tayshaun Prince
Tayshaun Prince has had one of the most successful, albeit unsung, careers among active players. Here's a look at the numbers that sum it up.
"We did it the most honorable way you could do it," Chauncey Billups said. "We didn't lean on one player, we just leaned on each other. I don't think that that will be done again, in the fashion that it was: defensively and collectively."
But, one by one, the players Prince had spent his entire career next to, the ones Billups calls his brothers for life, were phased out. When Richard Hamilton, one of the players spearheading a messy public team divide, was bought out of his contract in early December of 2011, Prince became the last on-court link to the halcyon days of Detroit basketball. Surrounded by mostly high-priced or highly drafted players -- and even McGrady for one season -- Prince's lean, freckled face came to represent the franchise ... as well as the struggles the team was enduring as a result of holding on to the past too long.
After logging the most playoff appearances by any player in NBA history over his first five seasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Prince's playoff run ended in 2009, in Curry's lone season as head coach. Detroit has yet to win more than 30 games in the four seasons since. But in 2011, with a chance to flee in free agency, Prince re-signed for four years, $27 million.
"The first year [after re-signing] we had some peaks and valleys. And the second year started off the same way we did the first year," Prince said. "At that point I'm like, 'Man, this is not working. It's not going like I'd planned.' It wasn't going like they had planned as well, like all the guys on the team had planned. It's tough because, they just fired Lawrence Frank. You're going to be in the same situation for the next couple years. At some point you've got to stick to a coach that's gonna turn things around and try to get it in the right direction, make trades to find the right pieces and stuff.
"I will say, Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight -- those guys are some great young pieces to work with. They're definitely going to be on the up and up, to build something around those guys to get better.
"But that's the future, and what they have to look up to. They've got some great young pieces. That's the start."
Prince, though, clearly represented the past.
Rudy Gay is the ideal of a classic superstar basketball player. Young and long and dynamically athletic, the 6-9 small forward can slash the lane or pull up from midrange, and do so with an apparent ease and smoothness that can't be learned. His physical appearance is reminiscent of McGrady, right down to the laid-back demeanor. Defined broadly by his knack for the splashy play and a quick trigger, so too is his game.
But in Memphis, among the snarling and the grizzled, his game was something of an outlier. Star power just doesn't fit a true collective of burly, "Grit and Grind," defensive-minded players that, despite Tony Allen's superior slogan-writing acumen, comes straight out of the Detroit blueprint.
"I do see some similarities in the way that they defend," Billups said of the current Grizzlies squad. "They seem like they take a lot of pride just stopping guys. Because of that, I like watching that team play. You never know who's gonna have the big night, never know who's gonna lead the team in scoring, somebody different is gonna beat you most nights. Defensively, they're just all together. I like that team."
When the Grizzlies were sold to an ownership group headlined by 35-year-old tech billionaire Robert Pera in December, moving Gay and his max deal became the logical way of cleaning up their cap-strapped books after committing a reported $246 million in contract extensions to Gay, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and still keeping the hope sparked by their 2011 first-round upset of the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs alive.
With former ESPN.com columnist John Hollinger brought on as senior vice president of basketball operations, the Grizzlies set four goals in any trade of Gay: Fix their salary cap and acquire a replacement small forward, a draft pick and a young player on a good contract.
After quickly striking a small deal with Cleveland that cleared them of a luxury-tax bill but didn't provide any future flexibility, the Grizzlies hashed out the framework of a trade that would send Gay and Hamed Haddadi to Toronto in return for Jose Calderon, a second-round pick and Ed Davis, a young talent whose advanced numbers foretell a bright future.
Replacing Gay fittingly proved the trickiest part, but the front office eventually landed on Prince, who, along with Austin Daye, a fellow Southern California native cut from the same mold, was traded to Memphis to complete the deal.
"This move allows us to go forward, and now we're not making moves with a gun to our head anymore," Hollinger said. "Now, whatever we do from this point forward, it's stuff we can do because we want to, not because we have to. But we had to take that bad medicine first with those first two trades."
Gay ultimately got what he wanted, too.
"I needed a change," Gay told Yahoo! Sports in March. "I needed a new situation. A new task. I needed a new task with something I could grasp, something I could take over. I need to be challenged. I was challenged in Memphis, but it was a tug of war at times. [In Toronto] I'm being challenged and they're seeing what I'm made of."
In the 12 years since being shipped south from Vancouver, the Grizzlies have grown accustomed to the purgatory of moderate success. There have indeed been lean times; five seasons ended with less than 30 wins, and six ended without a playoff berth. But a three-year stretch of playoff runs, from 2004 to '06, and another now have created balance.
Unlike the franchise's first strides toward significance, though, these contemporary blue bears represent Memphis' first legitimate shot at it. The Pau Gasol, Mike Fratello and Mike Miller Grizzlies indeed reached three straight postseasons, but they were swept out in the first round in each. The 2011 upset of the Spurs not only made NBA history, as the second upset of a 1-seed in a seven-game series in Round 1, but local history, as the first series victory since the franchise's inception in 1995-96.
So after letting their only meaningful team slip away less than a decade ago, there was a palpable fear among natives that the trade of another high-profile player would bring about the same.
"This was the first time they've had a good team in a while," Hollinger said. "They were worried we were going to come in and break it up right away. So there was a lot of nervousness locally from that."
There was even more skepticism nationally. The Grizzlies started the season 12-2 and looked like the contenders they hinted at being in the 2011 postseason. Dealing the team's premier shot creator, some worried, was the death knell to any chance at a championship. Lionel Hollins initially lamented the trade, too, saying during a midgame interview on TNT that "when you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget," though the head coach now says he was merely answering a question.
We knew Tayshaun when we acquired him. We knew what his résumé was. When he got in here talkin' what he was talkin', our antennas was up.
”-- Tony Allen
But Prince soaked up the Memphis way soon after the trade, playing one game off the bench and then starting in every one since. Gasol, the recently named NBA Defensive Player of the Year, said he loves knowing that Prince is going to be in the right place. Allen, who finished fourth in the voting, says that when someone beats him baseline, it's Prince's second nature to take Allen's man while he helps and fills in Prince's spot.
"This team is already established so it wasn't a thing where, coming in, [it] had to be drastically changed or anything like that," Prince said. "Being in the league long enough, I think when veteran guys get traded they can kind of adapt quicker than younger guys. Their defensive and offensive structure is pretty easy to go along with, and it's easy for me to say that because I've been in the league a long time, I've played against these guys, I know what they like to do. I kind of pick up where I left off when I was playing at a high level, getting to the playoffs and stuff with Detroit."
Although stoic and shy, Prince didn't hesitate to speak up, either. After Zach Randolph went off in the Grizzlies' clinching Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers, entangling Blake Griffin and then smushing him, all while attempting to convey innocence every step of the way, Prince was the one in his ear trying to talk him down. Playing peacemaker comes naturally after six years with Rasheed Wallace.
"We knew Tayshaun when we acquired him," Allen said. "We knew what his résumé was. When he got in here talkin' what he was talkin', our antennas was up."
The Grizzlies also knew what they were getting on offense from Prince, who has consistently scored 12-15 points a game with a mid-40s shooting percentage throughout his career. After scoring 11.7 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting in the first half of the season in Detroit, Prince's offensive production has dipped slightly with fewer opportunities than he has seen in five years, to 8.8 points per game on 43 percent shooting.
What the Grizzlies have gotten from him defensively is what they hoped for. "I think it rejuvenated him being on a contending team," Hollinger said.
Before the deal, the Grizzlies had compiled a 29-15 record with a defensive rating of 97.1 points per 100 possessions and offensive rating of 100.4 points per 100 possessions. With Prince, Memphis finished the regular season 27-11, with a defensive rating of 97.8 and an offensive rating of 103.3. By more firmly embracing who they are, the Grizzlies got even better: Their 56 wins this season are by far the best in franchise history.
"I think we got far more understanding of who's who and what's what," Allen said. "We getting our bread and butter from our post guys. We go as far as Marc Gasol and Z-Bo take us. Mike Conley has been a great floor general thus far. Everybody else just filling in, trying to be a piece to a puzzle. That's what's been key for us so far, and we've got to keep that same mindset going forward."
"Once we made our deals and started winning some games," Hollinger said, "I think everybody calmed down and realized, 'OK, the team's still fine.'"
The start of Prince's postseason career with the Grizzlies didn't go as well as it did with the Pistons.
Although as physical and gritty as ever, Memphis lost its first two games at Staples Center to the Clippers, first by 11 points and then at the hands of Chris Paul. And Prince's early offensive struggles, against the same team Gay averaged 19 points a game against in last year's postseason, only tapped into lingering concerns of a lack of offensive pop after the trade.
But a few adjustments finally got Gasol and Randolph rolling in the third game, and the duo steamrolled an overmatched Clippers frontcourt to four straight wins.
Prince also quelled the growing noise about his individual performance, scoring 15 points in Games 3 and 4. But tasked with trying to contain Kevin Durant in the conference semifinals, Prince's offensive aesthetics have again dulled; in two games, he is averaging a modest 6.5 points on 31.6 percent shooting and five rebounds.
"I had the ball more in Detroit. It's a different scenario," Prince said during the first round. "I can't worry about that. I've got to do what I've got to do when I have opportunities. In Detroit, it was just a different team."
Scoring, though, has never been his primary assignment -- at least not when there are other options. After four straight seasons of assuming a larger offensive burden than the last one, Prince is back to where he belongs: blending in and filling the gaps. The Grizzlies' starting lineup of Conley, Allen, Prince, Randolph and Gasol has played the third-most minutes in the playoffs thus far, and its defensive rating is second best among lineups with 50 minutes or more of playing time.
Memphis is doing what it does best. Prince is once again a part of it.
With the lead whittled to five with just under two minutes to go in Game 5 against the Clippers, Conley pulled up on a Gasol pick-and-roll attempt just outside the 3-point arc on the left wing and dribbled cautiously to his right, floating farther out toward midcourt. With seven seconds left on the shot clock, he wove the ball between his legs, freezing Eric Bledsoe, his defender, and sending Lamar Odom back into the paint.
With his body at ease and his gaze fixed in front of him, he fired the ball over to the opposite corner, where Prince stood ready in the catch-and-shoot position. With five seconds left on the shot clock, Prince, without hesitation, squared his body to the rim and let off a 3-point attempt with perfect form over Matt Barnes' outstretched arms.
There was little flash and even less preamble.
Catch. Square. Shoot.
The lead was now eight and comfortable. Another postseason win for Prince was 89 seconds away.
"This is an exciting time and a new chapter, in basketball and all different aspects," he said. "I'm definitely looking forward to it."