AP Photo/Duane Burleson
It was the closest game I’ve seen so far on my US trip, a game that literally came down to the last second. Unfortunately for me, the result went the wrong way.
The Pistons and Bulls faced off Monday night in Auburn Hills knowing that the loser would most likely have to face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs, a fate that might be no better than missing out on the playoffs entirely. It was an intriguing match up. Both the Pistons and the Bulls represent low seeded teams that could cause problems for the Eastern powerhouses, for different reasons. The Pistons with their vast playoff experience, the pride of past champions who haven’t been eliminated before the Conference Finals in six years. Contrast that to the Bulls, a young team with bucket-loads of athleticism and talent, and the brash confidence that comes with NBA naivety. They are worlds apart, yet they could only be separated at the last second last night in Auburn Hills.
Before the game I was in the Pistons locker room, trying to have meaningful conversation with the players without getting distracted by the stars I had admired as a fan for so many years. Only Maxiell, Amir and Bynum were there when I walked in. I said hey, introduced myself as an Aussie, and started chatting to Amir. “You came all the way from Australia and you wanna talk to me?” he joked. After talking about the team’s up and down season, Amir kept repeating one thing: “The playoffs is a different season… for us. We start all over again”. This could easily sound like a team trying to stick its head in the sand after a hugely disappointing season, but knowing the experience in this Pistons camp, it is hard to deny there’s some truth to it.
“You wanna speak to this guy” Amir was pointing at Will Bynum, who was on the phone sorting out tickets for the game. There were a couple of reporters hoping to speak to Will, probably owing to the limelight he placed himself under after scoring 26 points in the fourth quarter against the Bobcats a week ago. I wanted to know if Will had felt a change in his role since that game, if he was given more of a green light to shoot and score. Watching him against the Nets a few days earlier it sure seemed like he was intent at taking over in the fourth again. Was he conscious of this? “Not really” he said. He looked kind of surprised at my question. “I’m just taking whatever opportunities I can get. If I happen to get it going in the fourth, that’s how it happens. But it’s no different through the game”. The last thing I asked him was whether there was a sense of satisfaction in the Pistons just being in the playoffs, considering how tumultuous this season had been – were they just happy to be there? “Definitely not. We still gotta have that goal”. That goal is what we were talking about earlier, Conference Finals. A goal that will be infinitely harder to reach this season than in any of the Pistons previous six playoff campaigns.
Just before tip-off when the teams were being announced I was looking at Rose and Stuckey, thinking these might be the two most talented young guards in the East (with respect to Devin Harris). It was going to be a treat, and little did I know just how big an impact both these players would have on the outcome of this game. From the early stages two things became very clear – the Chicago front line was too active and too athletic for the Pistons, and Ben Gordon was unstoppable. The only thing that stopped Ben Gordon in this game was himself – foul trouble – and even then he would come back late to hit the game winner. Rip kept the Pistons in it with a big first quarter, and Stuckey looked extra aggressive on this night. A strong run in the second with Gordon on the bench gave the Pistons an 8 point lead going into the half.
Early in the second half I found out I was sitting next to a guy who coached Lanard Copeland in college (I was sitting with the media). He coached Lanard at Georgia State, and was telling me that Lanard walked into the team without a scholarship. Pretty soon after seeing him play, Lanard was given a scholarship. “He was athletic as hell. And a really great guy. Real nice guy” he said. I told him I’d say hi on his behalf next time I saw Lanard, which happens from time to time.
The game was a real tussle in the second half, and it turned into the Stuckey-Rose show. Stuckey was simply unstoppable on the dribble tonight, which made it all the more frustrating when he settled for a jump shot late in the game that could have won it. Rose displayed more of an all-round offensive arsenal, hitting a few J’s and floaters, and some tough drives. What made his performance all the more impressive was his poise. Despite being on the road in a pressure game, despite the ejection of Brad Miller, despite the foul trouble of Ben Gordon – all things that you think could potentially shake a rookie – despite all of that, he carried his team and never once seemed fazed.
Derrick Rose does not carry himself like a typical, cocky #1 pick rookie who has boundless talent. In fact, he doesn’t seem to carry himself with much confidence at all, and this has always been something that puzzles me about Derrick Rose. A lot of the time he appears disinterested, unmotivated. He doesn’t do all the shouting and pointing we’re used to seeing from point guards. Look at Chris Paul, almost the complete opposite. A guy who carry’s himself with so much confidence and charisma, a guy who commands your respect and attention on the floor. Rose appears to play more within himself, not necessarily a negative attribute – it just makes him harder to read. More of an enigma.
Tonight he let his game do the talking, and after Dyess missed a layup that would have sealed it at the other end, the ball was in the rookie’s hands with the game on the line. In arguably the move of the night, Rose flashed to the hoop, leaped out of the gym, hung and waited for contact, and made the tough finish over Sheed for the and-1. Then, for just a couple of seconds, we saw the real Derrick Rose. He stared at the crowd, almost right at me, and let out a massive roar. The rookie had just hit arguably the most important shot of the Bulls season, and he knew it. Not to take anything away from the game winner that Ben Gorden hit 30 seconds later, but I can honestly tell you, it was Rose’s shot that took the air out of The Palace last night. The silent assassin had struck.
So the Pistons will get Cleveland, and Chicago and Philadelphia will battle for the 6th and 7th seeds. Do I think Detroit can have any success against Cleveland? Honestly, yes. Win the series? Probably not. The Pistons did beat the Cavs early in the season in Detroit, and came within six points of victory a couple of weeks ago in Cleveland. Detroit can pose trouble for the Cavs with their bigs, especially with the recent news that Ben Wallace might miss games with a knee injury. Ultimately though, despite whatever match up advantages Detroit will have, it will be negated by the extreme confidence this Cavs team is playing with right now, especially at home. If Detroit steal one of the first two, I will race in here and start explaining how we can win the series. Until then, you won’t get any delusional one-eyed rants from this Pistons fan.
Next up on my agenda is a few days of R&R before trying to organise tickets to the playoffs, somewhere. I’ll be in New York for about a week so there’s a good chance I might go to Boston to see the Celtics. I’m also toying with the idea of going down South to see the Heat and/or Magic. I don’t know – I haven’t planned this far. What I do know is that I will still be watching a lot of NBA and blogging just as much. The last ten days has been absolutely crazy, a lifelong dream fulfilled. I need a few days to let it all sink in. Before we start all over again.