Tay’s block, ’Sheed’s guarantee, Rip’s brilliance – the ’04 East finals had it all

Tayshaun Prince's block on Reggie Miller was one of many memorable moments of the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals.
Ron Hoskins (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

An NBA playoff series is a living, breathing thing. It takes on an identity all its own, usually rendering all of the breathless pre-series analysis laughable in retrospect.

The 2004 Eastern Conference finals between the Pistons and Indiana was a doozy, with twists and turns that helped forge the identity of the Goin’ to Work Pistons and shape the legacies of the players who decided the series.

It will forever be remembered for Tayshaun Prince’s chase-down block of Reggie Miller that arguably was the most critical play of the championship run. If it wasn’t for that blocked shot to preserve a critical Game 2 win, the enduring memory on the Detroit side might have been Rasheed Wallace’s audacious Game 2 guarantee – “Put it front page, back page, middle of the page” – instead of the blocked shot that took him off the hook.

All eyes were on Rasheed that night. Game 1 had been on a Saturday night at Conseco Fieldhouse with a Sunday off day before Monday’s Game 2. At Pistons practice on the Conseco practice court, a horde of reporters waited for Wallace’s arrival.

By the conference finals round, the national media – including beat writers at the major dailies whose teams are no longer playing – swoop in. At the time, before the implosion of the newspaper industry, that meant dozens of reporters were crammed inside that gym. They parted as Rasheed walked through the door and closed ranks behind him to follow wherever he wanted to hold that day’s scrum.

Rasheed had some Bill Laimbeer in him in that he was willing to absorb the negative attention that comes with being a high-profile player in a hostile arena. To take one for the team, quite literally. But – subjective interpretation warning – I never got the sense he enjoyed the experience, unlike Laimbeer, who thrived on it. Laimbeer loved hearing the boos and catcalls. The way my mind’s eye will always see Laimbeer: leaving Chicago Stadium’s court, hand cupped to his ear, exhorting a venomous crowd to give him their best – or worst, more like it.

So it might have been Rasheed’s unease with the target on his back he felt from the Conseco crowd that night that explained his 4 of 19 shooting. More likely, it was the painful bout of plantar fasciitis he played over. It would have sidelined him for weeks had it come during the season.

Injuries go a long way toward determining the championship some years. In New Jersey, they’ll tell you they’d have knocked the Pistons out of the second round if Jason Kidd hadn’t wrenched a knee in the Game 5 triple-overtime classic. In Indiana, they’re still convinced they had the NBA’s best team in ’04 – the Pacers won 61 games, three more than anyone else and seven more than the Pistons – but two key players suffered injuries during the series.

Jermaine O’Neal – and, in case you forgot, O’Neal was an exceptionally good player at the time and as difficult a matchup for Rasheed Wallace as existed – suffered a knee injury in Game 4 that clearly affected him. And Jamaal Tinsley, an erratic guard but a physical specimen who played Chauncey Billups as well as almost anyone, also was subpar and, in fact, was a game-time decision for a few games late in the series.

But going into that series, the most troublesome injury was Wallace’s plantar fasciitis. Somewhere along the way, it magically cleared up. Arnie Kander explained it to me once – my eyes glazed over – but it had something to do with breaking down the thick band of tissue that comprises it.

And for all of that, the Pacers still might have won the series but for the combustibility of Ron Artest, who took a critical technical foul late in Game 6 that turned the game and enabled the Pistons to avoid a return Game 7 at Conseco.

If Prince’s block was the play of the series, the player of the series was Rip Hamilton. He was marvelous, nothing short of that. In a series where the Pistons averaged 75 points and shot 39 percent – baskets were ridiculously tough to come by on both sides – and still won in six games, Hamilton averaged 23.7 points and shot 47 percent while scoring 32 points on free throws alone. Big, big points, almost every one of them.

In the Game 5 win at Indiana – an 18-point margin, the only breather of the series for the Pistons – he dominated Reggie Miller, outscoring him 33-5. Rasheed left Pacers fans with something to remember him by, too, with 22 points, eight boards, three blocks, two steals and two assists.

So Sunday is the 10-year anniversary of the title-clinching Game 5 win at The Palace over the Lakers, but by the time that game tipped off the third title in Pistons history was a foregone conclusion. Nothing about their wins over New Jersey or Indiana was assumed until the final horn sounded after four wins were in the books.

They were the most bitterly fought and drama-filled playoff series the Pistons had played since the great Pistons-Bulls series of 1989 and ’90 and earned the Goin’ to Work Pistons a place in franchise lore right next to the Bad Boys.

Now Stan Van Gundy steps in, mindful of that history and determined that 10 years from now Pistons fans will have a third championship era to celebrate.