Monday, June 14, 2004

DEE-FENSE!!! Pistons Send Strong Message to Curiously Wrongheaded Critics

2004 NBA Finals, Game IV: Detroit Pistons 88, Los Angeles Lakers 80. Detroit Up 3-1.


Much more than just a catchy home crowd cry; it is a dominating force and downright decisive one.

I feel like a prophet. I won't say I knew we were gonna win this thing all along (because I didn't), but I did, however, make observations about elements that in fact have become the key to this series. Back in my post a week ago after the first game, I wrote:

[T]hey don't seem to understand that a good defense usually will overcome a good offense, in almost all sports (a point I made in my last basketball post). This was my pre-series analysis: the Lakers ain't the Lakers we all know and love when they have to face the best defensive team in the league. This is bound to make a difference, and it did. I predicted that Shaq would still get his points (no one in the league can really stop him) but that we could win anyway. As it was, Kobe got his share, too, but our defense shut down the rest of the team . . .

This happened again tonight. Shaq had 36 points and 20 rebounds! Kobe, though shooting badly, got 20. So they did their share, but it's not enough against a good defense. Last game, they scored 68: the lowest total in LA Laker playoff history (in Game One they got 75). They have averaged 80.5 points over four games. The Pistons have averaged 88.5. This is what good defense does. All of a sudden the defensive team outscores the offensive team, and it is because of defense. The Lakers only won the one game they took at home because of a miracle shot by Kobe Bryant. If it weren't for that, Detroit would be celebrating a sweep tonight. Coach Phil Jackson had never even been behind 2-1 in a Finals, let alone 3-1. He has won all the (nine) Finals he has been in (having Jordan and Shaq and Kobe help a bit in that task). Now he is reduced to bellyaching about the officials. Maybe he should threaten to jump off the big "Hollywood" sign (or into the Detroit River -- which is actually a strait; "Detroit" meaning "strait" in French); that might motivate the troops to at least score more than 80, if not actually win (let alone win decisively, as we have in our three victories).

On June 3rd, even before the Finals began, I wrote:

I doubt that many people give us much of a chance this year . . . but I wouldn't be too sure that it is a foregone conclusion. For one thing, defense often prevails over offense, in all sports. Bill Russell used to regularly outplay Wilt Chamberlain. Good pitching trumps good hitting in baseball, every time. If a good quarterback throws five interceptions because of skillful cornerbacks, his team will likely lose. The Lakers' scorers won't do quite as well with defensive, shot-blocking dynamo Ben Wallace in their face, and tall, long Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince also in the paint and all over their opponents . . .

Announcer Byron Scott made almost exactly this same point tonight, as if he had read my post; talking about how good defense wins in all sports: pitching, goalies in hockey, etc. They keep talking about Tayshaun Prince making life difficult for Kobe Bryant. Scott gets it (most coaches understand it). Slowly all the announcers have started to get it, with even Tom Tolbert (he of the plaid suits) admitting tonight that the Pistons are a great team, and have consistently outplayed the Lakers, and this is why the Lakers are losing above all other reasons (whereas before he was moaning about how boring defensive games are). It's about time. Some folks take a long time to come around. :-) But then it is more fun to overcome all the odds and naysayers.

And all the Lakers can do is complain about Jackson's selection of starters (like, Rick Fox could do any better?) and the foul calls (suddenly their "Payton Place" ever-present internal bickering is not nearly as charming -- it never is when one is losing). It's time the Pistons start getting the respect they deserve, as Chauncey Billups noted in a postgame interview. There were some incredible teams this year: San Antonio, Minnesota, Sacramento, Dallas, Indiana, New Jersey (in the second half of the season), the Lakers themselves, and we have done better than all of them. I can only say as Doc Rivers does: "Wow!" Not to "pile on," but I made even more successful predictions or true speculations. I wrote on June 3rd:

Malone and Payton are also old and might be worn down by our tenacious defense (even 24-year-old Ron Artest was fatigued in the last game he played against us, as announcer Doc Rivers stated). The brilliant, often Jordan-like Kobe Bryant is quite a streaky shooter. Strong defense will probably make him even more so.

All of this has also come true, though we must make allowances for Malone's frustrating injury (I do feel for him because he is a class act). And I wrote:

We can beat these guys, but it will not be easy at all, needless to say. It will require our best game every night . . . We did it before, overcoming all odds; we can do it again.

Yep, that's right. We can. And after just one more win, we will. Looks like a dynasty is coming to an end. This is a familiar role for the Detroit Pistons, as I have written about in a previous post. We ended the run of Bird's Boston Celtics and Kareem Jabbar's and Magic Johnson's old "Showtime" Lakers. Now it appears that we're gonna "whoop" Kobe and Shaq's "Slowtime" Lakers, while those two superstars are still in their prime (as no team has ever overcome a 3-1 deficit in the Finals). We didn't end Jordan's six-championship run, but we were the last team to beat him and his comrades in the playoffs before they began their romp. No one else ever beat them after that (i.e., with Jordan on the team -- not counting his hiatus playing baseball in 1994-1995).

In fact, Detroit is one of only four teams in the East that have won a championship since 1980 (along with Chicago, Boston, and Dr. J's Philadelphia 76ers, with their 1983 win). In the West, there have been only three teams to win since that time (LA, Houston -- and that only because of Jordan's "retirement" -- , and San Antonio). This is a very elite company. Many great players have played in the Finals but never won: Malone, Stockton, Payton, Iverson, Miller, Kidd, Barkley. And very few have won when virtually all the "experts" gave them little or no chance to win. Furthermore, the Pistons (assuming they win this thing) are the only team besides the LA Lakers to win a championship in both the 80s and in the current decade, with a completely different team. Ironically, we were the ones who ended dynasties of LA each time. We ended their two-time run in 1989 and stopped the current team from winning 4 in 5 years. Kudos! And the man who gets much of the credit for building this team is Joe Dumars, former Pistons star. When Grant Hill left in 2000, who would think we would get even better and win the Finals within four years?

But enough of my hometown glorying . . . what I am truly curious about is why all the experts were predicting a slaughter of the Pistons (many expecting a sweep)? How is it that they failed to understand that one of the all-time best defensive teams had some chance to win the Finals, even against the mighty Lakers, while a mere Catholic apologist predicted (at least the strong potentiality of) almost everything that has happened?

It's fun to say "I told you so" once in a while. I guess we can do that in sports discussions, huh? :-) I plan on going downtown to join in on the celebrations on this one. I've never done that before: not in '68 with the Tigers (too young) or for the '84 Tigers (I was on my honeymoon in a different state), or with the '89 and '90 Bad Boys Pistons (I did go to their parade though), or with the Red Wings. I don't like crowds and heavy traffic much, and care even less for drunken rowdyism, but there is something special in celebrating together and feeling that hometown pride. Detroit gets a bum rap as much as any city in the country, I think (as seen in the Jimmy Kimmel remarks). This is one Detroiter who wants to participate fully in the intense pride we feel in our Pistons and in the Detroit metro area. So I will go downtown this Tuesday if they win, or whatever night it happens. I won't get drunk (I've never been in my life, and alcohol bothers my stomach anyway). I probably won't even yell much, as that isn't my style. I won't burn any houses down or turn cars over. But I'll feel awful good and proud of both this team and my city.

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