What a Game: ‘The Block’ made sure ‘The Guarantee’ wasn’t invalidated amid Pistons ’04 title run
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(EDITOR’S NOTE: Pistons.com continues its periodic look at some of the best and most significant games in franchise history. Next up: A pivotal playoff win amid the march to the 2004 NBA championship.)
Made baskets aren’t supposed to inspire NFL touchdown-like celebrations at anything past Saturday morning church league intramurals, but that’s where the Pistons found themselves in the 2004 Eastern Conference finals against the No. 1 seed, Indiana.
“Somebody might score 100 points in this series,” Pacers forward Al Harrington said after Indiana held home-court advantage by winning the opener, 78-74, “but it will have to go three or four overtimes.”
He wasn’t wrong. Nobody got to 100 in the six-game series. Nobody got to 90. The high-water mark came in Game 3, an 85-78 Pistons win. In their Game 6 clincher, the Pistons scored 69 points.
Nowhere was the value of a basket more starkly revealed – at no time was the series more profoundly affected – than in the waning seconds of Game 2 with the Pistons nursing a two-point lead. You’ll know the play, if you’re even vaguely familiar with Pistons history, as simply “The Block.”
Future Hall of Famer Reggie Miller was streaking in for a tying layup with less than 20 seconds to play after a wild sequence that began with Rasheed Wallace having his shot blocked – one of an NBA playoff-record 26 blocked shots that game – and the ball ricocheting into Indiana’s end of the court. Chauncey Billups chased it down with just seven seconds left on the shot clock, but had the ball knocked loose as he tried to make something happen. It was passed ahead to a wide-open Miller running in a path that took him down the right wing.
Rip Hamilton was his nearest pursuer but started off a good 10 feet behind him. Tayshaun Prince was nearly as far behind but much further away, his starting position along the opposite sideline. Miller needed only one dribble after taking the lead pass and took a choppy step to get his feet set for takeoff of the layup, Prince gaining ground but still seemingly out of the play.
But Miller’s slight hesitation gave Prince – with his 7-foot-2 wingspan – just enough time to swipe the ball away a fraction of a second before it would have banked off the glass. Not only did Prince avoid a goaltending call – kudos to officials Jim Clark, Bennett Salvatore and Tom Washington for not assuming the infraction, so improbable did it seem Prince could arrive in time to actually block the shot – but he also managed to avoid swatting it out of bounds and allow Indiana to retain possession. Hamilton retrieved it in the corner and the Pistons held on to tie the series and get it back to The Palace of Auburn Hills.
“We lost the ball on that play and I was about six or seven steps back,” Prince said after the 72-67 final. “I was supposed to be the first guy back because I’m one of the perimeter guys and I didn’t see the turnover until late. I was just trying to get back there as fast as I could and I was able to get there in time. The majority of time when I do that I don’t foul.”
In just his second NBA season, it was already a play Prince had come to master.
“When I saw Tayshaun chasing Reggie, I said to myself, ‘Reggie better dunk it, or Tay’s going to get it,’ ” Hamilton said. “If you’ve watched our games this year, he gets one of them about every four games.”
“One of the greatest hustle plays I’ve ever seen,” Pistons coach Larry Brown marveled.
Prince’s heroics spared Rasheed Wallace from another withering round of media grilling after his bold guarantee of a Game 2 win following the Saturday night loss – repeated again before a Sunday practice.
“I’m guaranteeing Game 2,” Wallace said after his dismal Game 1 in which he scored four points and hit 1 of 7 shots. “That’s the bottom line. That’s all I’m saying. They will not win Game 2. You heard that from me. Y’all can print whatever you want. Put it on the front page, back page, middle of the page. They will not win Game 2.”
The next afternoon, a throng of reporters, photographers, cameramen, microphones and tape recorders greeted the Pistons. The NBA’s designated media session came after Pacers practice but before Pistons practice, so media members were already in the Pacers practice gym inside Conseco Fieldhouse when the Pistons arrived. As Wallace made his way through the double doors, the sea of credentialed media parted around him and then engulfed him.
“I said it last night and I’m saying it again: We will win Game 2,” he said. “Nothing’s changed. We’re winning Game 2, just like I said last night. Make it the headline. Put it on the front page.”
In addition to playing through a painful bout of plantar fasciitis, Wallace was dogged by foul trouble throughout the playoffs. Brown famously wouldn’t let his players pick up a third foul before halftime, so Wallace sometimes struggled to find a rhythm in limited minutes.
“Knowing him, he feels responsible for the game last night,” Brown said. “But again, the guy’s in foul trouble right off the bat in almost every game. And it’s kind of hard to play that way when the guy you’re playing against never gets a foul.”
The Pistons trailed 43-37 at halftime of Game 2 and Wallace seemed especially tight, missing his first seven shots and perhaps forcing things in an attempt to back his guarantee.
Wallace had only been with the Pistons since his February trade-deadline acquisition, but already he’d become part of the fabric. Amid a less cohesive bunch, the guarantee might have rankled teammates. His didn’t blink.
“I got his back, baby,” Billups said. “I’m not mad at him at all. I think that’s just the confidence he has in us as a team and that we squandered one away. You have to have confidence in your teammates to say that against a team that has won more games than anybody this year and you’re playing them on their court. We feel like we lost the game. We beat ourselves and they didn’t beat us.”
Whatever his issues were offensively, it didn’t throw him off his game at the other end. Wallace led the astounding 19-block effort with five. Ben Wallace and Prince added four apiece. In the second half, the Pistons held Indiana to a mere 24 points – 11 in the third quarter, 13 in the fourth. The Pistons carried a one-point lead into the fourth quarter, when every possession contained the fury of a cage match.
Brown’s public pleading with the officials might have worked. The Pistons shot 10 more free throws, 34-24, and both Ron Artest and Jamaal Tinsley fouled out for the Pacers. Indiana shot 22 of 80 for the game, the Pistons 23 of 66. The combined 59 second-half points were the fewest in NBA playoff history for a half.
Only two Pistons scored in double figures – Hamilton led them with 23, hitting 8 of 14 shots and 7 of 8 free throws – and Wallace was one of them with 10 points on 4 of 19 shooting. Prince would score just five points, but he made the play of the game – arguably the most iconic single moment in Pistons history, given its impact on a postseason that ended in a championship parade.
“Our defense was great. It was great at the time we needed it to be,” Prince said. “We took some charges. We got blocked shots. It was definitely Piston defense tonight.”