Sunday's game against the Pacers was three-quarters of the game that we've been waiting for since Chris Webber's arrival. There were stagnant stretches (a long period in the second quarter, a frustrating stretch in the fourth) where Detroit couldn't hit a bucket to save their lives and the Pacers took advantage with a parade to the free-throw line, but all in all the Pistons flexed their big-man muscles and imposed their will on an inferior opponent. Yes, that's what good teams are supposed to do, but that's what Detroit has so rarely done this past month.
Consider this: Chris Webber posted his best game yet as a Piston with 17 points and 13 rebounds, Antonio McDyess chipped in a rare double-double with 13 and 11 and Rasheed Wallace did his best Ben Wallace impersonation with five blocks, three steals and seven boards. Rasheed also scored 20 points, including 14 in a dominant third quarter in which the Pistons increased their lead to a game-high 16 points.
Jason Maxiell got into the game for nine minutes and scored only one point, but he made people notice when he damn near broke Jermaine O'Neal in half on a missed dunk attempt -- he was fouled on the play and split the free throws. Dale Davis also played almost six minutes, while Nazr Mohammed picked up the DNP. Not many teams can go five deep with quality big men capable of making an impact, but until Joe Dumars thins out this front court with a trade, the Pistons can do just that and then some.
For better or worse, the Pistons' offense has been based on perimeter jumpers this year. It's too early to say that's going to change for good, but for at least one game it was encouraging to see they could run the offense through the post. From the Free Press:
"We're starting to play, offensively, with more playoff-type execution," Saunders said, "getting the ball inside, playing off 'Sheed, playing off Chris, letting other guys play off them and making other guys play at our tempo.
"What 'Sheed's finding out is when Chris is on the floor, the best defender can't guard them both. So we have the ability to either go to 'Sheed on a certain set, or on the same set, find a way to get Chris on the block."
And better yet, the team isn't trying to outsmart themselves -- as the Free Press also notes, they went to Rasheed five straight times to open the third. He was just killing Troy Murphy, and there wasn't anything the Pacers could do about it. (Not to bring the mood down, but t's that type of mindset -- sticking with what works until the other teams proves they can stop it -- that probably could have won the Washington game on Friday.) It was great to watch (unless, of course, you're a Pacers fan).
Also, a quick word about Webber. I noticed during the game that it looked like he got a couple of lucky bounces, but then he kept getting them -- the ball would land in his hands without him even have to jump very high for it, and he finished with seven offensive boards. This isn't the first time I've noticed it, and I think I have to agree with Ian, who suggested over IM today that he's "compensated for his decreased athletic ability by adding an innate ability to anticipate the ball coming off the rim."
I think we're onto something, because that coincides with what Flip Saunders has noticed about Webber on offense -- from the Freep:
Saunders compared his transformation with that of Karl Malone's late in his career -- not as flashy, but more fundamental and just as hard to handle.
"He's not the athlete that he maybe was," Saunders said. "But his hands are so big. He ball-fakes. He has different things to keep the defender in."
While the front court dominated the game, the starting backcourt still came up big as Rip Hamilton (21 points) and Chauncey Billups (17) each got to the line 10 times. I was hyping up on Rip's increased ability to get to the line the entire first month of the season, and now we're starting to see some big-picture results. Chris McCosky of the Detroit News observes:
Richard Hamilton shot 303 free throws in 80 regular season games last year. He has shot 271 in 40 games this season.
It's no accident -- just like before last season he decided to increase his range (and went on to lead the NBA in three-point percentage), he decided this summer after speaking with Joe Dumars to work on his penetration, which inevitably leads to more free-throw opportunities. Good for him. There aren't many players in the game who can pinpoint a single aspect of their game they want to improve and show such significant results in such a short period of time.
Some quick observations about the bench: Carlos Delfino is still doing a lot of the little things that don't show up in the box score, but lately that's been at the expense of anything that shows up in the box score. On Sunday, he played 12 minutes without a single point, rebound, assist or shot attempt. Lindsey Hunter is still a great energy guy off the bench, but he's not quite the backup point guard this offense needs -- he was on the floor during some of those frustrating runs in which the Pacers threatened to steal this game.
Five hundy for Flip: With the win, Flip Saunders joined some exclusive company -- he now has 500 career regular-season wins, a milestone reached by only 24 coaches, including eight active ones. That's a nice accomplishment, but I don't think the fans in Detroit will care unless he picks up 16 more wins in April, May and June.