Saturday, June 03, 2006

Hats Off To Detroit

I have been asking myself the same question for the past three years. What will it take for the Eastern Conference to prevent the Pistons from reaching the NBA Finals? After last year's conference finals, I wanted to believe that a healthy Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal would have been enough. But how could I be sure? Detroit won 12 more games than Miami in the regular season. The Heat were an awful 2-12 against Division leaders! Pat Riley's offseason moves seemed to make the team worse instead of better. Surely, we were headed for another Miami loss in the conference finals.

As it turns out, Miami needed not only healthy superstars, but also healthy contributions from a few role players to eliminate the Big Bad Pistons.

The Heat have not won anything yet. Their quest will not be complete unless they win an NBA Championship. But thus far, I have been quite impressed with their playoff run. I questioned Pat Riley's off season acquisitions, but they paid huge dividends last night. With Wade feeling a bit under the weather, Jason Williams came up big, scoring 21 points on 10 for 12 shooting and dishing out 6 assists! Was this the same Jason Williams who could not cut it in Sacramento and Memphis? And what about Antoine Walker? The man who could not deliver the goods in Boston made 3 of his 5 three point attempts last night. "Employee Number 8"has graciously accepted his role as the team's third option in the offense. While most former all-stars could never relegate themselves to such a role, Walker has flourished. Isn't it ironic that Walker may win his first NBA title, only after he took his own words to heart. "I'm Employee Number 8." Yes you are, Antoine. And from the moment you started toeing the company line, the Miami Heat have been contenders.

But before we move on to the NBA Finals, it would be silly not to mention how impressive the Detroit Pistons have been over the past 4 seasons. Four trips to the conference finals and 2 appearances in the NBA Finals is a tremendous accomplishment. In an age of free agency and ultra-sensitive egos, Detroit demonstrated what it means to be a true team. They won as a team, and they lost as a team. Even in defeat, they had kind words for one another and for their opponent. While several players reportedly criticized Flip Saunders early in the series, each player that was interviewed last night came to Saunders' defense. There was no finger pointing or leaving the court before the game actually ended. The same qualities that helped Detroit win conference championships in years past will help them rebuild and return even stronger next season.

Each member of Detroit's team will have to face questions about what went wrong. How could 64 regular season victories not translate into post season success? What was different this year? I don't think the defeat had anything to do with Detroit at all. For the past 4 years, they have won games by scoring in the 70s and 80s. This year, with Wade and Shaq firing on all cylinders, and Miami's supporting cast rising to the occassion, Detroit simply could not keep pace. Every analyst in the country was asking what was wrong with Detroit's offense. It is amazing how quickly they forget. Detroit's offense didn't change. 75 to 85 points was good enough for them to win lots of playoff games in the past. In fact, that kind of deliberate pace helped them defeat Cleveland in this year's semi-finals. Detroit has always hung their hats on Chauncey Billups, Teyshaun Prince and Ben Wallace playing all-star caliber defense. Unfortunately for Billups and Prince, Wade is far too quick to be defended one-on-one. And despite the fact that Ben Wallace is one of the hardest working players in the NBA, there is nothing he can do to keep a healthy Shaquille O'Neal from getting position five feet from the rim. Tim Legler, Greg Anthony and Stephen A. Smith had the exact same conversation on six different occassions throughout the series. They couldn't understand why Detroit was unable to slow down Wade. Quite Frankly, you cannot double team someone 20 feet from the basket when one of his teammates has his defender sealed off 5 feet from the basket. Basketball is a simple game. You have to stay between your man and the basket. If one of the opposing players spends the majority of his time right in front of the rim, and if you cannot move him away from the rim, your team is in trouble. Ben Wallace may or may not be the NBA's best defensive player, but he is a man with tremendous pride and tremendous strength. The past 6 games, Ben learned that sometimes you simply run into someone who is a little better.

Detroit will be back. Some of the faces may change, but they will be back. They will be determined and filled with the same pride that has carried them for the past 4 years. I would even venture to guess that we will see these Pistons win another NBA Championship before RIP and the boys go their separate ways. In fact, I sincerely hope they return. The sporting world needs to be reminded what an actual TEAM looks like.

As for Miami, I am still not sure what to make of this team. After an undisciplined effort in Game 5, they played like a true team in Game 6, and showed the world that they are pretty tough to beat when they play the game at their pace.

Is there one more ring waiting for Shaq? We will find out soon. But in the meantime, the Western Conference Champion should listen carefully to some advice that a wise old man told me when I was a little boy.

"Basketball is a simple game. You just have to stay between your man and the basket."


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