What If: Rasheed’s free-lance defense left the Pistons vulnerable and perhaps cost them a 2005 title defense
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(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the NBA season is in limbo amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pistons.com will periodically look back at some of the great “what if” moments in franchise history. Next up: What if Rasheed Wallace hadn’t double teamed Manu Ginobili instead of staying with the plan to guard Robert Horry at the end of Game 5 in the 2005 NBA Finals?)
Amid all the warm and fuzzy tributes the night one of the all-time most popular Pistons, Chauncey Billups, had his jersey retired in 2016 came this poignant musing from the guest of honor: “The way my mind works, we almost underachieved here. I feel we should’ve had more than one championship and been to the Finals more than two times.”
They were fondly – adoringly – known as the “Goin’ to Work” Pistons by their fans, who would never associate that bunch with “underachieving.” But there would be universal sentiment among them that more than one championship was within their grasp.
And their best chance at grabbing it was lost in a dizzying few seconds at the end of overtime of Game 5 with the Pistons on the verge of taking a 3-2 series lead at The Palace of Auburn Hills with the final two games set for San Antonio.
That idyllic June Sunday – Father’s Day – had turned to Monday morning by the time Rasheed Wallace made an inexplicable mistake. Breaking a timeout huddle with 9.4 seconds left, ahead 95-93, everyone was reminded of the most critical mission: no 3-point shots. The worst-case scenario in their minds was giving up a two-point shot without enough time to counter and a second overtime on the horizon.
Wallace was guarding Robert Horry, who crossed the court from San Antonio’s bench to inbound the ball in the Spurs frontcourt from the sideline. Before official Ronnie Garretson handed Horry the ball, Wallace backed well off of him – apparently to front Tim Duncan, guarded by Ben Wallace, and prevent him receiving the ball at the elbow.
Tayshaun Prince was guarding Manu Ginobili, stationed on the other side of the basket along the baseline. Once Horry got the ball from Garretson, Duncan went to set a back screen for Ginobili, who darted across the lane and into the corner nearest Horry. That’s where the inbounds pass went. Wallace, instead of recovering to Horry, joined Prince in the corner to double team and trap Ginobili.
The double team failed to prevent Ginobili from finding an outlet – the unguarded Horry, who had kept San Antonio in the game with a blazing fourth quarter. Horry had three points after three quarters, but in the fourth quarter and overtime he’d already added 15 more when Gregg Popovich called timeout for the final Spurs possession. As much as the Pistons didn’t want to surrender a 3-point attempt, they most definitely didn’t want that attempt coming from Horry, who’d already earned the nickname “Big Shot Bob” for his late-game exploits.
It took just 3.5 seconds for Ginobili to take Horry’s inbounds pass, find him unguarded from the left wing and Horry’s dagger to ruffle the net at the south end of The Palace floor. The Pistons had 5.9 seconds left to try to salvage the win, but Rip Hamilton’s contested 10-footer over Tony Parker in the lane fell off and that was it.
The packed house, after a stunned and disappointed silence, rose to their feet for a standing ovation – for a fiercely fought game, sure, but also because they knew the Pistons who’d given them so many thrilling moments over the past few years had played their last game of the season at home and faced the near-impossible task of needing two road wins to defend their title in a city where they hadn’t won in the last eight years.
Billups’ memory of that play stings on multiple levels as he wonders to this day why Larry Brown made one personnel move after the huddle broke and the familiar five Pistons starters – Billups, Prince, Wallace, Wallace and Hamilton – headed back to the court.
“Here’s what’s crazy about that play,” Billups said in a 2018 podcast with ESPN’s Zach Lowe. “So we’re in the huddle. Of course, me and everybody else is saying, ‘No matter what, no threes, no threes, no threes. Press up. A two don’t kill us – no threes.’ We walk back on the floor. We get set up. I see Lindsey Hunter coming to the desk. I’m like, ‘Perfect. We good. He’s going to get Sheed, Tay’s going to go get Horry, Lindsey’s going to come in and take Manu, I’m going to stay on Tony, Rip is on (Bruce) Bowen and then we got Ben right there for Timmy. We good.
“Buzzer goes off and (Hunter) says, ‘Chauncey, I got you.’ And I’m like, ‘What the hell?’ I just didn’t understand it. So, obviously, there’s no time. It’s time to win the game, worry about it later. For so many reasons, it’s just crazy. I didn’t have any issues defensively. Not only that, what happens if the rebound comes off and your free-throw shooter’s not in the game? I mean, there’s so many different … I really think, for real, I think Larry just kind of choked in that moment. I don’t know. That was crazy.”
Prince would have been better suited to guarding Horry, though Wallace was a mobile defensive big man. The problem wasn’t so much who was guarding Horry – it’s that nobody was within the same area code when San Antonio’s hottest shooter was set up for the biggest shot of the series. The problem was Wallace breaking form and abandoning the one 3-point shooter the Pistons least wanted to take the game’s critical shot.
The Pistons put their remarkable resilience on display to win Game 6 at San Antonio and took Game 7 down to the final moments before losing 81-74. If the Pistons win Game 5 as it appeared they would until an undisciplined lapse, giving them three straight wins in the series, do they still go in and win Game 6 or does San Antonio steel itself and win the last two at home? Chauncey Billups and his teammates will always be left to wonder.
It was San Antonio’s second title in three years, robbing the Pistons of their second back-to-back titles in franchise history.
“The darkest day of my career was when Horry hit that shot in Game 5 on us,” Billups said on Lowe’s podcast. “Oh, man. That was brutal.”