The first two games of the AI Era didn't exactly impress, so when the Pistons opened last night's game by falling behind 14-2 early in the first, I expected the worst. As it turns out, my pessimism was completely unjustified: the Pistons actually clawed their way back to a tie by halftime before pulling away for good in the fourth quarter.
Who said Allen Iverson can't fit into Detroit's system? He led both teams with 30 points and nine assists. With Rodney Stuckey still in Michigan, Iverson spent all of two and a half minutes on the bench (all in the first half) yet still had enough left in the tank in the fourth to score nine points, grab three boards and collect both of his steals. A lot of guys played well down the stretch, but none so in the final frame than AI. In case the first two games left you confused, this was the type of performance that convinced Joe Dumars to pull the trigger.
But if we're going to heap praise on Iverson for his big game, Tayshaun Prince deserves an extra helping, himself. Prince finished with 26 points and 11 boards, and through seven games he's averaging 18.7 points and 7.7 boards, both of which would represent career-high marks by a wide margin were he able to maintain that production all season. With over 90% of the season left to play, it's silly to overreact about a nice start, especially since Prince has teased us over a series of games in the past before reverting back to his career norms. Is there any reason to think this time will be any different?
Call me a sucker, but I think there might be. With Billups gone, Prince is being asked to step up as a playmaker and, presumably, fill a void in the locker room. And to steal a point made last night by George Blaha and Greg Kelser, perhaps spending his summer winning a gold medal with the Redeem Team made him realize he has star potential no matter the opponent and can be more than just a reliable glue guy.
My biggest problem with Prince in the past has always been his tendency to fade into the background and defer to his teammates, but he's really taken Curry's team-wide mandate to be aggressive to heart. From the Freep's Vince Ellis:
"For us to be successful, he (Prince) has threes he has to defend who are really good and really aggressive," Curry said. "We want him to be able to go back at them, as well.
"We want that mind-set to be developed for Tay the whole year. So when we do get into a series against those elite threes in the league, he can push them, as well."
Maybe he won't continue topping 20 on a nightly basis, but there's reason to think it'll be more than the once-or-twice-monthly occurrence we've seen from him in the past. And if that's the case, maybe Curry's All-Star prediction will come true.
I mentioned Will Bynum in the previous post, but I'll reiterate: good things happen when he's on the court. I'm literally amazed at how well he's able to knife his way through the lane, and his disruptive defense hasn't been bad either. This isn't the case of "aw, look at the tiny guy keep up! let's subconsciously overrate his contributions" praise, either -- the numbers bear out what my eyes are seeing: he's posted an impressive 20.0 PER through his first four games. That'll almost certainly decline with a more legitimate sample size, but it's on Curry to let Bynum keep dancing until he turns into a pumpkin. From the same Freep article as above:
"Regardless of the team, he can find a way to get into that paint," Curry said. "He probably runs the mid pick-and-roll as well as anyone. He's a very strong finisher. He's been ready every time we've called upon him."
Rip Hamilton had another off night but finished on a high note: after missing his first eight shots (that's 16 bricks in a row, dating back to the New Jersey game), he went 4-8 from the field the rest of the night. I'm going to give him a pass, especially considering he finished with 17 points, thanks largely to going 8-8 from the stripe. His track record is far too consistent to think he won't can't work his kinks out.
Speaking of Curry, he deserves credit for sticking to his guns and refusing to let the Kings dictate his rotations. Sacramento essentially started three centers (Brad Miller, Mikki Moore and Jason Thompson) and a fourth (Spencer Hawes) saw significant action. Most coaches would see a trio of seven-footers on the court and panic, but Curry stuck with his handy three-guard lineup with Tay at the four. Let's be honest, Bynum and AI are barely six-feet-tall in shoes, but they were both in the backcourt in crunch time against a pack of roaming giants -- that just doesn't happen. From the Detroit News' Chris McCosky:
By going to a small lineup, featuring Bynum, Iverson and either Afflalo or Richard Hamilton, Curry also forced the Kings to alter their attack. They had been killing the Pistons with pick-and-roll plays. Once the Pistons went small, Kings coach Reggie Theus decided to abandon the pick-and-roll for straight post-ups.
"We felt better about defending the post-ups than the pick and rolls," Curry said. "This one worked out in our favor."
Had it backfired, Curry would have been roasted, so he deserves a little credit for making an interesting decision that paid off.