Prince emerges to become Pistons' go-to guy

AUBURN HILLS, MI -- He barely played during the regular season, and Tayshaun Prince could barely understand why.

He could not figure out why his five starts were followed by four straight DNP-CDs, why he only appeared in 42 games or why coach Rick Carlise -- in those moments during timeouts when he scanned the bench -- would barely have the confidence to call his name.

"I've always been ready," Prince said. "All I ever needed was a chance."

Over the past week, Carlisle realized Prince was a guy he could go to. In Game 2 of the Pistons' Eastern Conference semifinal with Philadelphia, Carlisle suddenly decided Prince was his go-to guy. The rookie responded by hitting an impossible twisting shot to tie the game at the end of regulation and scoring seven points in overtime as the Pistons prevailed 104-97 to take a 2-0 series lead over the 76ers.

For the Pistons, who were playing without starting point guard Chauncey Billups, this game was not all about Prince.

It was about Cliff Robinson starting the night with the hot hand, hitting his first six shots (he then went on to miss his next seven to finish with 16 points). It was about Chucky Atkins starting in place of Billups and scoring a career playoff-high 23 points. It was about Jon Barry -- after going scoreless in five minutes in Game 1 -- playing all of his nine minutes in the fourth quarter, hitting all three of his 3-point attempts and scoring 11 points to ignite the crowd.

"We had a lot of guys who played well," Carlisle said. "My hat goes off to the guys who have stayed on alert, stayed ready, and didn't complain about their lack of minutes."

But this game was mostly about Prince, who, for at least one night, became the king of The Palace. Saving a Detroit offense that became stagnant in the second half, Prince had some isolation plays run just for him and hit some tough shots against two pretty good defenders in Aaron McKie and Greg Buckner. Prince finished with 20 points to tie a career playoff high.

Prince would've never gotten the chance to be the hero if Allen Iverson had made at least one free throw with 15.1 seconds left. Instead, Iverson missed both shots with the Sixers clinging to a 92-90 lead.

The Pistons, with no timeouts remaining, pushed the ball up court and got the ball to Prince on the right side. He dribbled with his right hand against Buckner and then spun around to his right before hitting an improbable shot with his left hand to tie the game at 92 with 4.2 seconds left.
Detroit was the best overtime team in the league during the regular season (8-0 -- the most overtime wins without a loss in NBA history), and Prince, with the Pistons still running isolation plays for him, scored the first five points of OT to give the Pistons a 97-92 cushion. Meanwhile, Iverson didn't score in the overtime, missing both of his shots.

"I got a bad taste in my mouth," said Iverson, who scored 31 points but raised some eyebrows when he failed to enter a first-quarter team huddle. "I just want another chance to try to get it to go away."

The game probably would not have ended with so much drama had the Pistons been effective from the free-throw line (11 of 22) and not been outrebounded 48-35.

But all that did was set up Prince, who averaged 3.3 points per game this season, to provide the heroics.

"Getting the experience in college, that prepared me for this situation," Prince said of his alma mater, Kentucky. "This is a situation where the team needed me, and I've been playing a lot of minutes recently."

What's amazing is that had the Pistons not fallen behind, 3-1, in the opening round of the playoffs, Prince might still be riding the bench. In a must-win Game 5 with the Pistons needing someone to guard Tracy McGrady, Prince scored 15 points in 33 minutes In the Game 7 clincher, Prince had 20 points, hitting seven of 10 shots.

Prince's demeanor helped him contain his frustration about not getting any minutes. Prince never complained, even though he felt he should be playing on a team that, at times, had been offensively challenged.

"He might be the only guy on this team quieter than me, so you never really knew what was on his mind," said Ben Wallace, who had seven points and 15 rebounds Thursday. "But he stayed positive. He said all season that he would keep his patience, and he's showing that he's ready."

Not only is Prince ready but he's showing he's capable of coming through in the clutch -- much to the shock of some of his teammates.

"Here's a guy who saw a couple of minutes as a rookie, and now we're isolating him as the main fourth-quarter guy," Barry said. "This is amazing."

It's amazing to everyone but Prince, who is simply glad for the opportunity.

"The team needed me," Prince said. "I just wanted to step in and do something positive."

Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at Jerry.Bembry@ESPN3.com.