Chris Hampson/NBAE/Getty Images
Game 6 at New Jersey: The night the Pistons grew up
Remember the half-court heave by Chauncey Billups that forced overtime in the 2004 playoff run that ended with the Pistons showered in confetti, the only championship of the three in franchise history won on their home court?
Of course you do. In any tribute to the 2004 champs or any celebration of the career of Mr. Big Shot – how do you think he got the nickname? – that clip is prominently featured.
In the 10 years that have ensued, one salient fact about that night might have gotten a little obscured. The magic of the moment aside – one that sucked the breath out of everyone’s lungs for a nanosecond, before The Palace exploded with the realization of what had just been witnessed – the night ended in crushing disappointment.
The Pistons lost in triple overtime. Brian Scalabrine came out of mothballs to score 17 points, hitting all four of his 3-point attempts – his only four triples of the entire seven-game series – when foul trouble decimated both sides. Every Pistons starter aside from Billups fouled out. Larry Brown ran his starters into the ground – Billups and Tayshaun Prince played 55 minutes apiece, both Rasheed and Ben Wallace played 48 minutes – in a palpable desperation to win that game.
Why? Well, beyond the obvious – Game 5 in a 2-2 series determines the winner about 80 percent of the time – the importance of this Game 5 seemed even more pronounced. The home team had won the first four games by 15 points or more. The Pistons had been clobbered in their last four playoff games over two seasons at the Nets’ old Meadowlands barn.
It was a notoriously dreary building that didn’t have the reputation of an intimidating home court, but in those days – the heyday of Jason Kidd – that place was rocking for the Nets in the playoffs. Kenyon Martin would stand at mid-court for nearly a full minute before tipoff flexing his muscles and egging on a blue-collar crowd and they let loose.
Down 3-2, nobody gave the Pistons much of a chance to force a Game 7 back at The Palace. It looked over after the first five minutes, when the Pistons trailed 13-4. A nine-point deficit in that series seemed like 29. Coming on the heels of the deflating Game 5 loss, the Pistons looked ready to run a white flag up the pole.
Nobody would have called them underachievers. The consensus was the Pistons were a year or two away from legitimate contention. But they came back, trailing by just two after a quarter. They dominated the second quarter, 27-11, and led by 14 at halftime. The Nets just as surely dominated the third quarter, cutting the deficit to three headed to the fourth.
It was anybody’s game with a minute to go when the Pistons showed their mettle. On two straight possessions, against a staunch defensive team exhorted by ear-shattering fan support, they executed their half-court offense to perfection. It produced jump shots for Rasheed Wallace and Hamilton – not gimmes, but the shots Brown designed the offense to produce – and they knocked them down, bloodlessly.
The Pistons won by six and then came back to The Palace to crush the Nets by 21 in Game 7. There were whispers Kidd had wrenched his knee in that triple-overtime Nets win and there was no question he had nothing left by Game 7, when he went scoreless in 43 minutes, missing eight shots.
Crazy, the twists and turns the playoffs make you endure. Teams are profoundly transformed over the course of those two months, at least the ones lucky enough to last that long. The Pistons that beat the Lakers in five dominant games were nowhere near the team that began that playoff run. To be sure, the Pistons that beat the Indiana Pacers in the conference finals to get there would not have been prepared to do so without the tribulations they endured to outlast New Jersey.
I’ll share some thoughts on that Indiana series in tomorrow’s True Blue Pistons.