Riddle of the Road
Pistons head west with a message to deliver: Things are going to be different
Five games into a regular season begun on the heels of a preseason that didn’t pass muster due to injuries, the Pistons next face the most severe test of an NBA team’s mettle: the extended road trip.
In the meat of Chauncey Billups’ first tour of Pistons duty, treks like the ones the Pistons embarked upon today – leaving for Portland, where they’ll launch a four-game trip spanning a week against the Trail Blazers on Monday night – were looked upon with relish. Those Pistons embraced the challenge of the road. Nothing satisfied them more than that moment when a hostile arena grew eerily still, the issue of superiority settled in the minds of the home team and their fans.
“If you’re a great team, you’re supposed to win at home,” Billups said. “No matter who comes in your building, you’re supposed to win at home. You’ve got your fans with you, you’re at home, you sleep in your own bed. But I think the true test is being able to do it on the road at a very, very high level. The road is always a tough challenge.”
If he had his druthers, Mr. Big Shot would prefer the schedule didn’t send the Pistons to the West Coast to solve the riddle of the road just yet. Injuries that sidelined Brandon Jennings and Rodney Stuckey for nearly a month and cost them all but the preseason opener complicated the task of fostering chemistry that the Pistons already knew would challenge them.
“We’re very new. I wish it could be a little later because it’s a decent trip,” he said. “We’re still kind of in the preseason stage as far as everybody playing together. But it’s the NBA. You take ’em when they come.”
The Pistons will be looking to snap a 19-game road winless streak against Western Conference opponents. Their last such win came on Nov. 14, 2010 when Rodney Stuckey scored 17 points and dished out seven assists in a 100-96 win over Sacramento in John Kuester’s final season as Pistons coach.
The Pistons generally take two extended trips west each season, the first one in November when the circus takes over The Palace. The last such winning trip came five years ago when Michael Curry’s Pistons went 3-1 with November wins at Sacramento, Golden State and the Los Angeles Lakers before the trip ended with a loss at Phoenix. In January of that season, the Pistons split four games, winning against the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets, losing to the Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz.
Probably the most memorable trip of the Goin’ to Work Pistons era came in March 2007. The Pistons won at Denver, the Clippers, Seattle and Portland before rolling into Phoenix to play the 50-14 Suns of Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. Early in the second quarter, Billups left with a leg injury. The Pistons – already playing without backup point guard Lindsey Hunter, who missed the trip when he incurred an eight-game suspension for unwittingly taking a banned diet supplement – turned to little-used Flip Murray to run the offense. He finished with 25 points and six steals and the Pistons crushed the league’s hottest team, 105-83.
“It was definitely an opportunity to go out and show we were elite,” Billups said of the mind-set those teams took with them on the road. “For this team now, it’s an opportunity for us to let people know it is different now. It isn’t the same as it was the last however many years. But we are young and the road is a tough place for a young team.”
Maurice Cheeks dropped a few reminders to the Pistons last week about the challenge of their first extended road trip, Billups said.
“Coach already has talked about the road and the challenges it presents and us trying to become a good road team,” he said. “Coach is already doing his thing.”
As a player Joe Dumars brought back in some measure for moments just like these, Billups will gauge the mood of the team and act accordingly over the eight days spent away from home. What he’s come to learn about this version of the Pistons over the six weeks since training camp opened is that he won’t have to worry about his young teammates getting swept away by distractions.
“They do look at it like a business trip, absolutely,” he said. But part of the business, Billups understands, is using the time away from home and family to forge the bonds that bind the best teams. He’ll be the ring leader in organizing team-building outings and dinners. “We will definitely do some of that,” he said.
As for any grand speeches before the Pistons dive into the thick of their schedule … maybe, maybe not.
“As a leader, you don’t plan a week ahead,” he said. “You check the heartbeat of the team, you see where everybody’s at and you strike when need be.”
Since Billups left the Pistons five years ago, when they’ve hit the road, the road has usually hit back. They once headed west eager to confirm their elite status loudly to the NBA. That’s a little ambitious for the Pistons in their current form. But announcing that things are different this time, for these Pistons, would be a pretty good yield for their first extended road trip under Mo Cheeks.