Arnie’s Optimistic

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Joe Dumars always watches his creation, these Detroit Pistons, go about their business with a stoicism that’s almost eerie in its detachment. The TV cameras zero in on Dumars and you couldn’t tell if the Pistons were down 20 or seconds away from clinching another division championship or playoff series.

But did his stoicism have a tinge of somberness to it Wednesday night when TNT caught him at one point – after Orlando’s lead had grown well into double digits and his All-Star point guard had walked to the Amway Arena locker room with a gait that would have made Fred Sanford wince?

Dumars was NBA Finals MVP when the Pistons claimed their first championship – 19 years ago, already? The Pistons swept the mighty Lakers that spring, with Dumars blocking a shot by David Rivers to preserve the Game 4 clincher. Maybe it’s ironic, or maybe it’s merely coincidental, that the clincher was almost thoroughly anti-climactic because …

Because it really ended early in Game 2 when Magic Johnson clutched at the back of his thigh, his trademark incandescent grin instantly evaporating into a grimace, and limped off The Palace court. Hamstring. That followed an injury to his backcourt mate, Byron Scott, in a practice leading up to Game 1. Also a hamstring.

Johnson, his thigh bandaged as if to be mummified, tried gamely to give it a go when the series swung to Los Angeles, but he dragged that leg behind him a few trips up and down the old Forum hardwood and left for good. Scott never got back, either. Which explains why it was David Rivers’ shot that Joe D blocked. That era of the Lakers’ dynasty had closed – the 1988 title the Magic-Kareem-Worthy Lakers won in seven over the Pistons would be their last.

I’m not suggesting anything quite that dramatic happened Wednesday night when Chauncey Billups got his left foot caught up between Jameer Nelson’s sneakers, which dragged his left leg along for the ride as Nelson slid out of bounds while Billups’ right leg remained planted – stretching and straining his right hammy beyond human reason.

What I am suggesting is that – the miracles of modern medicine and the mystical healing power of Arnie Kander aside – it sounds wildly optimistic to me that Billups will be ready to go in Game 4. I’d say it’s dicey he gets back for Game 5 on Tuesday.

Then again, Kander radiated optimism, by all accounts, on Thursday. Though Billups said his hamstring was sore, Kander told reporters that because the injury occurred almost in slow motion – Billups stretching out gradually – as opposed to a sprinter straining the muscle through violent and explosive movement, it should not be nearly as arduous a recovery.

But let me further suggest this: The Pistons have the right roster, and the right opponent, to cobble this thing together well enough to escape this round. And – the miracles of modern medicine and the mystical healing power of Arnie Kander willing – that might buy them enough time to get their point guard back, and at full strength, for the next series.

Rodney Stuckey isn’t Chauncey Billups. Not yet, anyway. Chauncey Billups wasn’t Chauncey Billups as a rookie, either. He wasn’t even Chauncey Billups when he arrived in Detroit to start his sixth NBA season – the Chauncey Billups who winks at pressure and manages a game the way Brett Favre managed the two-minute drill.

Stuckey won’t orchestrate the Pistons’ half-court offense with Billups’ aplomb and won’t stick a handful of killer 3-pointers, but there are some things the rookie does so well already that Orlando’s coaching staff is surely forming contingency plans in the event it’s Stuckey at the throttle and not Billups. You saw it even during Game 3, when Stuckey began abusing pint-sized Jameer Nelson in the third quarter as the Pistons whacked an 18-point deficit to three. Stan Van Gundy yanked Nelson to put physical shooting guard Keith Bogans on Stuckey – which left Rip Hamilton with a huge matchup advantage on Keyon Dooling.

Stuckey has things to learn – he sometimes gets tangled in pick-and-roll defense and is still absorbing when to pick his spots to attack offensively – but there are certain areas where he presents Orlando a different set of problems than Billups. Stuckey, in particular, makes the Pistons a more potent transition team, and his ability to draw fouls and knock down free throws – he was 9 of 9 in Game 3 – puts pressure on Orlando’s challenged backcourt.

There’s also Lindsey Hunter and Juan Dixon to consider. Surely one of them, at least, will be activated for Game 4 if Billups can’t go. Both of them have been NBA starters. Both give Flip Saunders valuable pieces in his toolbox. Neither will be at any physical disadvantage when matched against either Nelson or Dooling.

If this were the regular season, my guess is Billups would miss about 10 games. That’s how long he sat a season ago when he pulled a calf muscle. Different injury, of course, and hamstring recovery can vary wildly based on the severity of the pull. We don’t know how severely Billups’ strained his in Game 3, though the mere fact he walked off on his own – even gingerly – suggested it wasn’t catastrophic, and Kander’s day-after optimism lends further positive evidence.

But even if we’ve seen the last of Chauncey Billups in this series, it’s not a death knell for the Pistons. This isn’t Magic Johnson trudging to the locker room, dragging his team’s chances along with him. The Pistons have better alternatives than David Rivers at their disposal. And they don’t have backcourt opponents like Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars staring them down.

The Pistons rushed Rodney Stuckey along for a reason this year. They couldn’t have known this would be it, but here it is. Joe D won’t have to muster any fake stoicism to watch Game 4.