Some pundits predicted that the Pistons would slip a bit this season without Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown at the helm. That couldn’t have been further from what has transpired.
Flip Saunders, ousted from Minnesota last season, replaced Brown on the sideline and changed the way the team plays the game. He installed a fast-break offense that had Detroit averaging nearly 100 points in each of the season’s first three months.
That newfound firepower combined with the Pistons’ trademark stalwart defense -- they still allow less than 90 points per game -- propelled them to a dominant first half of the season. They were the last team to take a loss, starting 8-0.
“We can beat you in many ways,” explained center Ben Wallace after Detroit made it 8-for-8 on Nov. 18. “We can come out and fill it up with you, or we can get stops when we need to and shut (you) down.”
Detroit then won 13 of its first 14 December games to improve to 24-3. Its nine-game winning streak at the tail end of that stretch crested in a victory over Miami, last season’s Conference Finals opponent, in which the teams were tied with two minutes left before the Pistons closed the contest with a 7-2 run.
A flip of the calendar did not slow Detroit down. In January, it again won 13 of the first 14 games, including an 11-game tear that ran through Jan. 29, when the Pistons topped the Lakers to move to 37-5. More than halfway through the 82-game schedule, they were on pace to match the historic 72-10 mark set by the 1995-96 Bulls.
“I think as a team we've had a very good focus,” said Saunders after his team's 17-3 start. “Every time we step on the floor, we're trying to play for Game 7 of the Finals -- to get that home court.”
Largely because of the team’s success, four members of Detroit’s starting five were selected by the Eastern Conference’s head coaches as reserves for the 2006 All-Star Game in Houston. Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton each became first-time All-Stars, Rasheed Wallace earned his third appearance in the midseason event (he had participated twice previously with Portland), and Big Ben was honored for the fourth straight season. Tayshaun Prince, the only starter left out, was there in spirit as his teammates inscribed his number 22 on their sneakers.
The quartet provided a crucial spark, scoring the East’s first 11 fourth-quarter points in a comeback 122-120 victory that made Saunders just the fourth coach to win the All-Star Game for both conferences.
The continuity of that five-man unit has been a major ingredient in the Pistons’ success. It had a chance to become the first to survive an entire campaign until Rasheed was forced to sit out the season’s 74th game because of the automatic NBA suspension that came with his 16th technical foul of the year. By comparison, Brown’s Knicks have used a league-high 42 different starting lineups with limited success; New York is 22-56.
And even as Detroit has “cooled off” from that initial scorching start, it still plays at a level matched by few other teams. Currently 63-15, the Pistons have secured home-court advantage throughout the NBA Playoffs and have the most wins in a season since the Lakers went 67-15 in 1999-2000.
The motor that has made their powerful engine run smoothly is Billups, a former journeyman who has flourished under Saunders more than any other Detroit player. The point guard, who takes many of the late-game shots, has been mentioned as a Most Valuable Player candidate and would be the first Piston to be so honored.
But while the media attention and individual accolades are certainly nice, the players themselves would tell anyone that there can be only one fulfilling conclusion to what has already been a remarkable season.
“The thing about it is, we've got five superstars out there,” said Hamilton after the Jan. 29 victory. “(If) we want one guy to go out there and average 30, we can do that. But we know what we want at the end. We want to win a championship.”