March 25, 2002
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - The Pistons are making no secret of their desire to return to the old "Bad Boys" style of the 1980s. We said style. We're not talking about reprising some of the more truly noxious individuals to play the game (you know who you are). We're talking about a competitive drive and spirit that those Pistons teams had and rode to two NBA championships.
Well, as a national television audience saw yesterday, their longing for the good old days is more than just a pipe dream. The Pistons are closing in on their first division title since the glory days (1990) and they moved a step closer yesterday thanks to a performance that would have stood out in any time or place.
Ben Wallace, a more-than-worthy descendant of the Bad Boys, abused the Celtics on the boards and in the paint, and the Pistons fed off his relentless energy, taking a 109-101 decision before a sellout crowd at the Palace. Wallace, who entered the game as the No. 2 rebounder and No. 1 shot-blocker in the league, added to his totals with an NBA season-high 28 rebounds along with six blocked shots. The guy was everywhere, a 21st Century amalgam of Dennis Rodman's knack on the glass, John Salley's shot-blocking, and Joe Dumars's overall grit.
Yes, Jerry Stackhouse had 30 points and Cliff Robinson added 22 and Detroit is 10-0 when those lads each go for 20 or more. The Pistons are 15-1 when Robinson has 20-plus. But Celtics coach Jim O'Brien saw the difference in the game and cut to the chase immediately.
"We had a problem keeping Ben Wallace off the glass," the coach said. Wallace's 28 boards were six shy of Rodman's franchise-record 34.
Wallace had no peer inside, and even did some scoring. He had 13 points and two of the most fan-friendly hoops came on alley-oop feeds from Robinson. He also altered more than a few layups.
"He's the Defensive Player of the Year, hands down," marveled Tony Battie, who, like any other Celtic who tried, had no luck with Wallace. "He's a 2000 [sic] Rodman. He does it all and he's only 6-8."
The Celtics missed a chance to close the gap on the Pistons in the Eastern Conference and now have lost four of five since their seven-game winning streak. They also may have lost Kenny Anderson for a brief spell; he sprained his left ankle late in the third quarter and said he doubted he'd be able to play tonight against Miami.
Detroit, meanwhile, had to weather a tough schedule turnaround, playing Friday night in Los Angeles, then not practicing yesterday because of a red-eye return. If the players were tired or flat, they didn't show it. Stackhouse opened the game with a 3-pointer as Detroit built a 10-1 lead, forcing the Celtics to play catch up for most of the afternoon.
Boston trailed by 10 after one and by 3 at the half after a 15-point second quarter from Paul Pierce, who had 35. Pierce and Antoine Walker (28) kept Boston hanging around and a little third-quarter run gave the Celtics a 62-58 lead, their largest of the game. Boston still led, 66-64, with 5:16 left in the quarter when the roof fell in as Stackhouse and Wallace took over.
Stackhouse (9 for 19) connected on a tough baseline jumper and, after a Pierce miss, the next Detroit possession summed up the game. Chucky Atkins (17 points) missed, but Wallace tipped out the rebound to Stackhouse, who also missed. Wallace again tipped out the rebound and Stackhouse drove baseline for a 3-point play that gave the Pistons the lead for good.
Wallace did the same thing later in the quarter (Detroit had a 20-10 advantage in second-chance points), retrieving two misses off the offensive boards, which led to an Atkins 3-pointer. That shot closed a 15-0 run that gave Detroit a 79-66 lead. Robinson and Wallace also had 4 points apiece in the spurt, which capitalized on the Celtics' one-and-out offense and their inability to get back on defense.
"They hurt us with their fast breaks and with us getting back on transition," O'Brien said. "Those are areas we need to improve upon."
The Pistons thwarted a mild Boston rally in the fourth (90-84 with 6:35 left) with an 8-2 run featuring two ceiling-scrapers by Jon Barry and, fittingly, capped by a Wallace alley-oop. Detroit then closed the deal by scoring its final 11 points from the line. The Pistons didn't make a field goal in the final 2:57. They didn't need to. They'd already done enough.