Even after a completely unexpected 5-0 road trip out west -- punctuated by Friday's complete and utter dismantling of the Phoenix Suns -- there was no aura of invincibility surrounding the Pistons on Sunday against the visiting Mavericks, not with Chauncey Billups watching in street clothes on the bench. But even without Billups, the Pistons did more than just "hang in" with the Mavs -- they actually had a legitimate chance to win the thing.
A lot of credit needs to go to Flip Murray, who played wonderfully for the second game in a row (if it looks weird reading that, imagine how I feel typing it...) by leading the team with 18 points (on solid 7-15 shooting) while adding six assists, four steals and just two turnovers (including one as time expired that had no bearing on the game and was the result of taking a finger to the eye). He'll never be the distributor that Billups is, but he definitely looked smooth in transition, picking up assists on back-to-back fast break buckets in the second quarter in which he made split-second decisions in the paint.
Murray had another outstanding play earlier in the quarter when he stripped Jason Terry just past the mid-court line for his third steal and proceeded to set up a streaking Carlos Delfino for the fast break -- he threaded a perfect bounce pass between defenders in just the right spot for Delfino to catch up with it and convert the layup. Murray didn't get an assist on the play but probably should have.
Where did this guy come from? Because this isn't the player we saw earlier in the year. I know Murray has a history of getting hot before ultimately collapsing, but I also think some of the improvement is genuine since Chris Webber's presence means he's no longer asked to initiate the offense every trip down the court. Obviously the Pistons aren't going anywhere in the postseason without a mostly healthy Billups, but at the very least we now know Murray won't cripple the starting lineup every time he starts a regular season game. In fact, he had the best +/- of any of the Pistons starters on Sunday, finishing at an even zero while his fellow starters ranged from -3 to -8.
What made this loss most frustrating was that Detroit had control of the game for the middle two quarters but failed to take advantage of free points in the end. Rip Hamilton, who's hit better than 87% of his free throws this year, came up cold in the fourth by hitting just 2-7 from the stripe in the final frame. What sparked his untimely case of the yips? It's impossible to say, but I'm willing to wager he let his frustration seep into his concentration at the line. He was called for a tech in the first quarter and wasn't shooting particularly well all afternoon. Plus, he didn't even make his first trip to the line until the final quarter, so I'm sure he felt the referees were against him all afternoon.
Hamilton had a chance for an easy bucket with four minutes left in the fourth that would have given Detroit the lead, but he was hammered on a fast break by Erick Dampier. The refs called it a flagrant, and with two shots and possession, the Pistons had a chance to not only regain the lead but also create at least the makings of a cushion. Instead, Hamilton split the free throws and Detroit failed to score on the next possession. With the game tied at 81, Dallas went on to score the next six points to put the game on ice.
Capping off his miserable performance, Hamilton wasn't even after to finish the game after running into an inadvertent C-Webb elbow with a minute a half left. Ironically, the mask he wears to protect his face dug into his temple at contact and opened a gash that eventually required three stitches to close. He finished with just 13 points.
It was obvious Flip Saunders wanted to win this game -- he used a seven-man rotation, with Jason Maxiell (the eighth player) seeing just 38 seconds of action. Four starters saw at least 40 minutes of action, with Antonio McDyess and Carlos Delfino each seeing 20 off the bench.
It was Rasheed Wallace's big game in Dallas which helped the Pistons beat the Mavericks earlier in the season, but he was relatively quiet this time around with 13 points and six boards. According to Chris McCosky, Rasheed wasn't happy about some of Flip Saunders' adjustments late in the game (even though for the most part they worked). From the Detroit News:
But there was something more covert, and possibly something more serious, that ultimately sunk the Pistons on Sunday. Rasheed Wallace jumped off the page in the fourth quarter. He became upset at the strategy Saunders deployed against the Mavericks' small lineup in the fourth quarter.
When asked where the game got away from them, Wallace said: "Honestly, I choose to keep that to myself. We didn't get a couple of stops, they hit a couple of shots. Give them credit."
The Mavericks went small two minutes into the fourth quarter -- three guards and Josh Howard at power forward, with Dirk Nowitzki -- and quickly erased the Pistons' four-point lead. Saunders chose to stay with a big lineup (keeping Antonio McDyess and Webber on the floor) for five possessions. The Mavericks ran off an 11-2 run and took control of the game.
Offensively, the Pistons missed some easy opportunities, including two free throws by Hamilton. After Wallace scored, Saunders decided to downsize his lineup to match the Mavericks.
The Pistons scored five quick points to pull within one, but, even though downsizing got the Pistons untracked, Wallace was out of sorts.
"I think we should have stayed big," he said. "Let them change to us. We shouldn't change to them."
I don't understand McCosky's ominous tone in the first paragraph, and I literally have no clue what "Rasheed jumped off the page" is supposed to mean. Did Rasheed's displeasure with Saunders' coaching show in his play on the floor? Not that I could tell, but I think that's what McCosky is trying to say, and if that's the case I'll defer to him since he had a better view of the action than I. He has to be talking about more than just a post-game complaint, especially since he says Rasheed's displeasure "ultimately sunk the Pistons."
For what it's worth, anyone familiar with reading McCosky can tell you he's usually quick to downplay any controversy surrounding Rasheed, so for him to suggest something was up is definitely interesting. I just wish he was more clear in what he's talking about since I watched the game and still have no clue what he's trying to imply.
Budding soap operas aside, there is a silver lining to this game, and that's that the Pistons proved they can play with the league's elite. They split their season series against both the Mavs and the Suns, with their only losses coming in games in which Chauncey Billups didn't play at all due to injury. At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, that's a nice confidence boost should the Pistons meet one of these teams again in the Finals.