Coming down Opdyke to the back entrance of the Palace, it finally dawned on me: this could be the last Pistons home opener in Auburn Hills. As a Pistons die hard, you'd think that the emotions following this realization would be maybe sadness or nostalgia. Instead, it was... well, just plain awkward.
I say awkward because the 2016-17 Pistons home opener was like going to an engagement party where everyone in attendance knows the groom is going to leave the bride at the altar.
Thing is, it was still a good party. After losing the season opener in Toronto, the Pistons knew they had to take care of business in front of their first home crowd. Even if that home crowd was 26th in attendance last year.
The pre-game festivities were very traditional, and that's a very good thing. You might remember me writing about two years ago, where Tommy G opted for Kid Rock, motocross, and well just all the wrong stuff. Last year it was scaled back to a more traditional Pistons approach. Light pyro, and the "Final Countdown."
During the 2015-16 home opener, Andre Drummond addressed the crowd. A symbolic moment of him taking over as the face of the franchise with the departure of Monroe. In his address, he spoke of how hard the team will work, and he said one keyword "playoffs." It was a big thing, basically setting the bar from night one. This year, Tobias Harris addressed the crowd, thanking the fans for coming out and promising how hard the team will work. That was it. A few keywords missing, mainly "back to the playoffs." Regardless, we know this team is looking to build on last year's success. Maybe it's something that just doesn't need to be said.
One thing that really jumps out when you watch this team in person, they all look like they get along. Not in the "oh, we all work together and need to be cordial to one another" kind of way, more in the "we're actually friends that just happen to work together" kind of vein. Andre Drummond and Boban played each other in one-on-one during warmups, giggling as Andre kept attempting step-back threes. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson had a mini-dunk contest in the layup line. Reggie was even floating around to dap guys up and crack jokes. I swear I even saw Marcus Morris smile.
When the actual game tipped off, it was, well, not the best. The Magic immediately tried to expose the size mismatch between Elfrid Payton and Ish Smith, which worked for most of the first quarter. The Pistons starters were out of sync on more plays than expected, looking like they couldn't find a good rhythm. On pick and rolls, Ish was being dared to make decisions, which led to kick outs and more threes than I think they expected to take. Despite this, they kept hitting shots and were leading a close game. It wasn't until the second unit came in that this game really got blown out, largely thanks to Beno Udrih's superb orchestration of the second unit.
Beno isn't the fastest, most athletic looking guy on the court. But when you're watching him, look for his pace. He can change his speeds and get defenders lost with shifty moves. It's already one of my favorite things. He's also a confident shooter that is just as comfortable launching an open three, as he is creating a good midrange look - something the bench desperately needed this year.
In the second quarter, the Pistons three-point lead, suddenly ballooned to 13 with a couple of Beno jumpers and Morris threes. The bench's defense was also active, with hands in the passing lanes causing crucial turnovers. And suddenly the Magic were, in a word, atrocious. At one point they had a FG% of 23. They also missed a ton of free throws, ending the night at 66%.
After securing a 23-point lead heading into halftime, the game hit cruise control. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, people were hitting the exits to beat traffic, the win was that comfortable feeling.
Here are some additional notes from the game.
- The Pistons locked arms during the national anthem, all of them, including coaches, except Reggie Jackson. A curious absence since he still stood for the anthem, just not participating in the unity symbol.
- TEES FOR THREES IS BACK FOR 2016-17!
- Pistons went all in on craft beer this year, and it is glorious. The Palace is smartly recognizing the ven diagram overlap of NBA fanatics and beer nerds.
- This one guy in section 115 was consistently chanting for Stan to put Boban in. By the third quarter, he had most of us doing a "BOOOO-BAN" chant that got smiles and laughs from the bench.
- Same guy also kept calling Elfrid Payton "Starboy." Clever Weeknd-inspired name, though odd since Elfrid's current hair is drastically different than Weeknd's new haircut.
- Ish Smith had like four or five female fans in my section that went crazy every time he touched the ball.
- Walking out halfway through the 4th quarter, I thought about how the Palace has been a great home for the NBA in Metro Detroit. Most everyone you talk to is happy that the Pistons are very close to moving downtown (including myself) but that's not to say the Palace has been awful. Yes, it's a bit of a drive, and the options for pre or post-game are limited by comparison, but that stadium is still a special place.
After all, this is the building where I have my first memory of a live sporting event. Where I saw Shaq with the Magic. Saw Jordan with the Bulls and Wizards. I saw the 04 Lakers get blown out in 2 games of the NBA Finals. I saw Rasheed Wallace leave Robert Horry open in the corner a year later and screamed like I witnessed a murder. Saw LeBron mature and the eventual dismantling of those 04 Pistons through the Flip Saunders and Michael Curry years. Even sat through the dark ages of John Kuester, Lawrence Frank, and Mo Cheeks. I’ve seen Josh Smith shoot more threes than anyone besides the good people of Atlanta. I've seen Kobe's farewell, Ben Wallace's legacy cemented, a blowout of the 73-9 Warriors and these new Pistons first taste of the playoffs. Not to mention countless concerts, Detroit Vipers, Detroit Neon, and other random events. As weird of a building it might be, the name was fitting.
Going back through that list, it's hard to not get nostalgic. For Detroit fans, the big story this year is Joe Louis Arena closing downtown as the Red Wings move to their new arena. I went to last night's home opener with my Dad, a lifelong Detroiter. I asked him if he feels bummed at all about the Joe closing down. "Well, I wont miss those stairs. Place was like climbing Everest. But saw a lot of good games and shows in that building. Lot of my youth is in there."
I couldn't help but feel the same way about the building we just sat in for another Pistons win.