Bittersweet Win

Pistons knock off Pacers on a what-if kind of night

TEAM COLORS

The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue

– Rip Hamilton’s late-season resuscitation continued as Hamilton scored 23 points and needed just 13 shots from the field to get it done. Hamilton shot 7 of 13 and sunk both of his 3-point shots, but also got to the foul line nine times, good for seven more points, and dished out six assists. But that was only good enough for co-billing with another UConn product on a night their Huskies got back to the Final Four. Charlie Villanueva, after not playing at all on Friday night nor in Saturday’s first three quarters, came off the bench to drop in 13 points in the fourth quarter. He made all five of his shots, three from the 3-point line.

BLUE COLLAR – Jason Maxiell didn’t get off the bench much during long stretches of the past three months, but with Ben Wallace (knee) unavailable and Chris Wilcox (knee) shutting it down at halftime, Maxiell was called on to start the second half after being first big man off the bench in the first half. Maxiell gave the Pistons 23 gritty minutes, scoring eight points on 3 of 4 shooting and grabbing four rebounds while helping control Indiana on the offensive glass. The Pacers had five in the first quarter alone and finished with 14.

RED FLAG –As quickly as the Pistons built an 18-point lead – breaking a 53-all tie with eight minutes left in the third quarter by outscoring Indiana 21-3 over the next six minutes, they gave the majority of it back even faster. Indiana whacked six points off the lead by the end of the third quarter and another six early in the fourth. If it wasn’t for Charlie Villanueva’s deadly shooting, a 12-point win might have been a crushing loss.

When a team wins 26 games in a season, as the Pistons now have with Saturday’s 100-88 downing of Indiana, you can pick a different adjective to describe every one of them. Saturday’s was bittersweet.

Against the team they’ve known for weeks they would have to beat out for the East’s final playoff seed, the Pistons built an 18-point third-quarter lead and held off an Indiana rally that cut it to six. They were led in scoring by the suddenly resurgent Rip Hamilton, who dropped 23, and got a huge boost off the bench from Charlie Villanueva.

It leaves them technically still alive in the playoff race – with nine games remaining, they’re now five games behind the Pacers in the loss column – but mostly feeling wistful about what might have been if Hamilton had been able to play this way out of the gate and given them the consistent scorer they’ve lacked. Without that automatic 18 to 20 points, the Pistons have groped – both to find the right lineup combination and to win games.

“I think about it all the time,” Austin Daye said. “I want to make the playoffs really bad. I don’t know what the odds are now, but it’s not looking great. To beat that team, it makes us feel like we have a chance. It’s tough, knowing we can beat this team and play this well. It’s a frustrating situation, but hopefully next year we can bounce back.”

After losing at Cleveland 24 hours earlier, in itself an underscoring of their season-long struggle to establish an identity, the Pistons started off slowly against Indiana, which itself was embarrassed at home on Friday, losing by 17 to Sacramento. The Pacers built an early nine-point lead, but the Pistons took a one-point halftime lead and expanded it to 18 on the strength of a 21-3 run, during which they looked like a vastly superior team to the one that is likely to line up in the postseason.

“If you could ever bottle some of the things we did tonight, we’d be very, very competitive,” John Kuester said. “We understand that.”

Hamilton was again the player who led the franchise in scoring each of the past eight years, from the five turnovers that typified his aggressiveness to the six assists and nine free throw attempts. Kuester, since reinserting Hamilton into the starting lineup six games ago, is seeing the player he expected to have for the full season.

“You’ve got to give Rip a lot of credit – he’s done a wonderful job,” he said. “You gauge a lot of what Rip’s game is all about by what he’s doing offensively. I’m more impressed by his body language defensively. He is engaged in what we’re trying to get done. That’s why we’re both on the same page – because we communicate with each other.”

For all of Hamilton’s good work and the 21-3 run of dominance, it might have been a game that got away from the Pistons if not for the fourth-quarter fireworks of Villanueva. After getting yanked quickly in Wednesday’s fourth-quarter collapse and subsequent loss to Miami, Villanueva didn’t play at Cleveland. He probably wouldn’t have gotten into Saturday’s game, either, if not for the sore knee that grounded Chris Wilcox at halftime on top of the knee injury that has idled Ben Wallace.

Villanueva scored 13 points and made all five of his shots, three of them from the 3-point line. The biggest came with 3:17 left after a Danny Granger triple put Indiana within seven.

“Fresh legs,” Villanueva grinned. “I was well rested. (Kuester) called my name and I was ready to go and my teammates helped. They gave me the ball in position to score. (Assistant coach) Brian Hill talked to me in the third quarter. He said, ‘We might get you in, so just be ready.’ So I was ready to go.”

“Charlie did a great job,” Kuester said. “Came in and gave us a big spark offensively. We went with Charlie and he really delivered tonight.”

They all did, and it felt good to win by 12 over a team that’s likely to play in the postseason. But it also stung to know it should be them gearing up for a postseason challenge.