Detroit doubters fuel Pistons
Having heard plenty about Dwyane Wade, the Pistons got their backs up and challenged him with their length and tremendous team effort.
MIAMI -- It was just a preseason game but the Detroit Pistons got the message early that their 2004 NBA title wasn't widely respected.
On the program for a preseason game between the Pistons and the Miami Heat in Little Rock, Ark., last October, there was a big picture of new Heat star Shaquille O'Neal on the cover and a medium-sized one of his teammate Dwyane Wade. Scrolled on the bottom looking like little plastic Army men was the Pistons' starting five.
From the preseason to entering Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat on Monday, the Pistons players have felt their championship hasn't been respected. The New England Patriots of the NBA if you will. No big commercials. No hoopla. One NBA All-Star.
But after defeating the Heat 90-81 on the road in Game 1, maybe the Pistons will finally get their props.
"I don't know that we've received the same respect that other champions in this league have received," Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said. "But we use that as motivation. That's why we always play with that chip on our shoulder."
The Heat owned the East's best record in the regular season and have the NBA's most dominating force ever in O'Neal combined with a bright young star in Wade. The Nov. 19 fight between Pistons fans and the Indiana Pacers in Detroit also got the champs off to a slow start as they recovered mentally.
Quietly, while Miami, San Antonio and Phoenix received all the attention, the Pistons just kept winning. Even though Detroit was the defending champs, the Heat entered this series as the favorites. Now, the Heat are left regrouping while the champs' confidence just got stronger after causing their East rival to lose for the first time in nine contests in the playoffs. And this game was in Miami, too.
"Miami was getting that respect before this series started and they should have because they dominated our conference the entire season with their acquisition of Shaq and some other guys," Billups said. "They dominated so they deserved everything they received. But we won the championship."
The series with the Heat is far from over. Detroit is also nowhere close to repeating. But until the champs are knocked off, respect them as the champs they are.
"We're still the underdogs," Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace said. "The majority of you guys have either Miami or San Antonio winning it all. But we still have to go out there and play. We're just trying to prove that last year wasn't no fluke."
'Sheed did everything Monday except sing the anthem.
Rasheed Wallace is real good.
We forget that. He still carries his Portland rep, digs himself the occasional PR hole, racks a few techs, gets chippy with the press corps and seems to get lost on the floor some games ... so we forget how good he is, how good he can be.
And then there's a night like Monday night, when he brings the whole kit, hitting little, unblockable turnarounds, knocking down threes, boarding, blocking shots, making origami swans, giving out deep-muscle massages, and fixing up a little something tasty for dinner while he's at it.
And then it hits us: This guy could be dominant. He could be an all-timer. He could be Kevin McHale, only with range.
Twenty and 10 in only 30 minutes? Seven-of-10 from the field? Four-of-5 from the arc? You want Rasheed? You can't handle Rasheed!
And that's the truth. And if he brings it like this three more times, this series ain't no series at all. If you're a Heat fan, you watch Rasheed Monday night and your hope and faith are like sands through the hourglass.
But here's the thing: If you're a Heat fan, you shouldn't hang your head. In fact, you ought to be feeling all right. You just withstood Super 'Sheed (and Mighty McDyess, too), and you were tied with five to play, and you lost by only nine. Yeah, RWallace is real good, but he's not as good as he was Monday night, not every night out, not even very often.
Talented and creative as he is, 'Sheed's a 44 percent shooter on the year (32 percent from 3).
Talented and creative as he is, the Pistons, with their balanced attack, still tend to wander away from him when he could, and maybe should, be their money guy (how does LB play him only 30 minutes Monday night?).
It's reasonable for Heat fans to be down this morning -- losing home court is a major blow -- but there's no reason for despair just yet.
They already may have seen the best of Rasheed. Now, if they can just find the best of Shaq and Wade ...
The secret ingredient in the Pistons' amazing defensive job against the Heat in Game 1 was Detroit's ability to defend Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal without fouling. The Heat got only 10 shots from the charity stripe on Monday -- one-third of their season average.
Miami finished the season second in the league in free-throw attempts, largely because Shaq and Wade were so difficult to contain. Each averaged roughly two free throw tries for every three field goal attempts, with each player's ratio being among the league's best. But in Game 1, the duo combined for a meager six free throws vs. 39 field-goal attempts.
Of course, it's hardly a fluke that the Pistons avoided the whistles, as Detroit committed the second-fewest fouls in the league in the regular season. Thus, the free-throw battle shapes up as a key to the series since it matches up one of each team's biggest strengths. In Game 1 the Pistons won that war easily, so it was no surprise that they took the opener.
SportsNation responds to Game 1 in the West finals:
BenP (Atlanta): This was a completely demoralizing loss for the Suns because the Suns just realized that other teams can play their offensive game, but the Suns realize that they can't play the Spurs' defensive game.
Hende (Ohio): Spurs will win because of two myths that were proved wrong: Phoenix doesn't need to play good defense, just outscore opponents, and even with MVP Nash and Amare having good numbers (and carrying the team), they still lost.
Jason (East Lansing): I pick the Suns. If the Spurs need Brent Barry to be the player he was supposed to be all year long (like in Game 1), as opposed to the player he has actually been like since he signed his contract, they are in trouble. I can't put my faith in Brent Barry after one game.
Collin (Franklin, Mass.): A fantastic beginning to a series that WILL go seven games. I still think this is a harbinger of things to come, though. Steve Nash can't let Tony Parker do that to him.
Mike (Boston): The Spurs are the best team in the NBA. They can run with any team and outscore them. If their shots aren't falling, then they have the fortitude and ability to play stifling defense. They can just beat you in too many ways. Did I mention Tim Duncan?
Mark (Warsaw): I've been betting against the Suns all season, but I'm switching sides. The Spurs have nobody that can slow Amare Stoudamire down, Shawn Marion can't possibly be this bad again, Joe Johnson will come back at some point in this series, and I don't believe Tim Duncan can play at this pace for a whole series without getting injured.
Brian (Englewood, N.J.): I hope it's a bump in the road. NBA fans need the Suns to advance to the Finals. If it's the Spurs vs. Pistons, it will be ugly grind-it-out basketball. No one wants to watch that -- I mean, I will, but I don't have much going on.
The Pistons' Flash Inhibitors: Could we put 'Sheed here? Sure. But it was the 48 minutes of hell the Detroit team D applied to D. Wade that set the tone for the series, more than the 30 minutes of individual brilliance by R. Wallace. With Tayshaun Prince hounding him and the Wallaces blocking him, Wade's clean looks were few and far between during his disastrous 7-for-25 night.
Play of the Night
When Rasheed Wallace hits a big shot, he doesn't keep it a secret, as he proved Monday night during his 20-point, 10-rebound, 3-block night, featuring four 3-pointers in five attempts.
The Heat used some unusual strategy in Game 1, playing Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning on court together for the first time during the 2005 playoffs.
Contrary to reports during the game, Shaq and Alonzo did play together as teammates briefly in three games during the regular season, for total time of less than three minutes.
Elias Sports Bureau
Tim Duncan doesn't issue playoff guarantees. None that we can remember, anyway.
The promise he made Monday, though, has to encourage the Spurs and their followers as much as the idea of Duncan guaranteeing a victory.
"I am in," Duncan said, "for the rest of the way."
Duncan was referring to his health status after entering the Western Conference finals with two sprained ankles ... and needing whirlpool treatment at halftime of San Antonio's Game 1.
The Suns still hope that the up-and-down pace of the matchup wears on Duncan's vulnerable ankles, but Duncan is declaring now that he can't be run out of the series.
Mike (Providence): Hey D, everyone talks about what a great playoffs Nash is having, but forget to mention that defense is actually half of the game ... and Nash plays none of it. First Jason Terry (Jason Terry!!) and now Parker going off on him, like he's not even there. Do you agree/disagree?
Dee Brown: Everybody knows he's not the best defender but what he brings to the table otherwise negates that. But against Parker he has to defend or the Suns won't win. Joe Johnson would be guarding Parker if he were healthy and until then Nash is going to be exploited and get worn down playing defense. But right now they have no choice but to put him on Parker.
When the East finals opened on Monday, Shaquille O'Neal began his quest to become just the fifth player in NBA history to play in back-to-back NBA Finals for different teams:
The "illustrious" list so far:
Sanford Appell, ESPN Research