On October 28, at 8 pm, the Pistons officially began their 2009 regular-season campaign. I was in Charlottesville, VA, visiting my cousin, Jeff. Leading up to my visit we had spent hours emailing and talking on the phone about the Pistons - and the NBA in general. The Pistons could have swapped rosters with the Canadian Olympic curling team and we would have still been excited for the season. And, why not? There were new names up and down the roster, and plenty of questions to be answered. How would CV31 and Gordon work out? Will Rip and Gordon be able to coexist? Does Big Ben have anything left in the tank? Are any of these rookies worth five Kroner?
Yes, we were a couple of NBA junkies in desperate need of a fix.
In the season opener the Pistons dominated the Memphis Grizzlies in a 96-74 route. Rip Hamilton and Ben Gordon combined for 47 points on 31 shots. Afterwards I wrote, "any game that Rip and Gordon combine for an efficient 45+ points is one the Pistons should have a good chance to win." Little did I know that would be Rip's last game for a long time.
Earlier in the day I was driving back to Jeff’s apartment from Shenandoah National Park. A lone adventure in the forest had my mind all over the place. For some reason it popped into my head that the Pistons had not endured a true season-changing injury in quite some time. I quickly repressed the thought deep into my psyche.
Then it all happened
First, it was Rip (played one game this season) and then Prince (played three games). Next was Gordon who played well in the first 15 games, missed two (ankle) and has not been healthy for the last three. Charlie Villanueva - who came into the season with a hamstring injury – recently missed time with a broken nose, and is now playing with a mask. The worst part - it was all my fault. If I could surgically remove the part of my brain that makes me think things like "man the Pistons have been healthy for a long time," I would surely find out if the operation is covered by my insurance.
Still in the hunt
In my recap of that first game I also wrote that we'd have a better sense of the season after the first 20 games. Well, after 20, the Pistons are 8-12. All things considered – not too bad. They are only 1.5 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference. That is more of a sign of how weak the bottom half of the East is - and not how good the Pistons are - but, I'll take it. Entering the season the Pistons were not "contenders". In fact, there were a lot of national pundits who thought they wouldn't make the playoffs. So battling through all of the injuries, and still having a viable chance to finish in the middle of the pack, is about all you could ask for at this point in the season.
It has been written ad nauseam, but the play of Ben Wallace and Jonas Jerebko has been the biggest (pleasant) surprise of the season. In the last four games Jerebko has averaged 13 points and 7.1 rebounds (detnews.com). He's played well defensively all year, and is gaining confidence on the offensive end. At 6-10 he handles the ball well and isn't afraid to take an open shot. Without the play of Wallace and Jerebko there is no telling how bad these first 20 games could have gone.
Defeating the Wizards
On Sunday the Pistons defeated the Washington Wizards 98-94 at the Palace, and have won three of their last four games. Rip and Prince were still in street clothes (no telling when they'll be back), while Ben Gordon was limited to 11 minutes and change due to his ankle injury. The Wizards came into the game with a 7-11 record, but had won five of their last nine games. This was a game I felt the Pistons needed to win, but not necessarily one they should – considering all of the injuries.
Late in the first quarter Will Bynum hit a three pointer and the camera cut to the bench. The Pistons were standing together with their hands in the air. They looked genuinely excited. From the angle they showed I couldn’t see any Pistons not in the huddle. I think the team really gets along, and in the NBA good chemistry can lead to good things. It can overcome a lack of skill and allow a team to overachieve. The Wizards probably should have won that game, but they didn’t. Why?
The Pistons wanted it more.
Coming into the season there was a lot of talk about the Pistons playing “small ball”, and once the season started there was a steady diet of the three-guard lineup (before Gordon went down). Well, at the 5:50 mark of the third quarter, against the Wizards, John Kuester introduced the world to “big ball”. That is when Charlie Villanueva replaced Ben Gordon in a lineup that already featured Wallace, Jerebko, Daye and Bynum as the lone true guard. At the time of the substitution the score was tied at 58. At the 3:31 mark Kwame Brown replaced Big Ben, and the Pistons’ one-guard lineup finished the third quarter ahead by two points, 71-69.
With 62 games left in the season there are still plenty of questions to be answered. When, and if the Pistons will have a healthy roster is the biggest. But, until then, the Pistons should be able to beat crappy teams - and in the East - there are plenty.