2005 Detroit Pistons: One Game Short Of A Repeat

In 2004, the legendary and well-traveled head coach Larry Brown, came to Detroit, inherited a 50-win team from Rick Carlisle and promptly won the city’s first NBA title since the Bad Boys in 1990. The 2005 Detroit Pistons came oh-so-close to doing it again, before coming up one game short in what proved to be Brown’s last real hurrah as an NBA head coach.

Detroit did it with defense. Ben Wallace anchored the middle and the center was 1st-team All-Defense, averaging 12 rebounds and two blocks per game. Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince were both 2nd-team All-Defense on the wings and perimeter. The Piston D ranked third in the league for efficiency.

Scoring points was a bit more of a challenge and Detroit was in the lower half of the NBA. But they scored enough to win. Billups was the primary three-point shooter, hitting 42 percent from behind the arc and averaging 17ppg to go with his six assists. Rip Hamilton ran with Billups in the backcourt and averaged 19 points/4 rebounds/4 assists. Prince was good for 15 points/5 rebounds per game.

Rasheed Wallace (no relation to Ben) had a 15/8 line, even as he shot three-pointers at a pace out of keeping with his percentage. And Antonio McDyess proved a valuable free agent addition to the bench, scoring in double-digits and averaging six rebounds a night.

Detroit was slow out of the gate, but their start was anything but boring. On November 19, they hosted the Indiana Pacers—a rematch of the previous year’s conference finals. The Pistons didn’t play well in a 97-82 loss, but that wasn’t the story. With less than a minute to play, a fight broke out. It appeared to be broken up, with officials deciding whom should be ejected. Then a fan threw a beverage at Pacer forward Ron Artest, who charged into the stands and the mayhem erupted all over again.

That night has gone down in lore as “The Malice in the Palace.” The Pacers, with multiple key players involved, took the worst of it, and Artest was suspended for the rest of the season. The Pistons lost Ben Wallace for six games and a handful of others for one game. As bad a night as it was for the NBA—and it was probably the worst in league history, given the assault on a fan, whom Artest didn’t even properly identify—the end of result was a big weakening of Detroit’s key rival.

When the focus returned to basketball, Detroit edged Miami 78-77 on Black Friday, and lost at San Antonio. The Heat and Spurs were teams the Pistons would see more of at the season’s most critical junctures. But by Christmas, Detroit’s record was a middling 13-12.

Wins over good teams from Washington, Boston, and Chicago after the holiday started to get the Pistons rolling and they were up to 26-18 by the end of January. They played good basketball in February, sweeping two more from Washington and surging out to a 36-19 record by March 1. The Pistons were five games behind the Heat for the 1-seed in the East but were getting comfortably settled into the 2-spot.

A spotty March included a couple of three-game losing skids. But Detroit started to peak in time for the playoffs—an 11-game winning streak before losing a meaningless finale. The Pistons wrapped up the regular season at 54-28, second in the East and the fifth-best in the league overall. They were going into the playoffs as a legitimate threat to repeat.

The Philadelphia 76ers were the first-round opponent. While not the same team they had been four years earlier when they reached the NBA Finals, the 76ers were still led by explosive guard, Alan Iverson, who merely dropped 31ppg. Chris Webber was a veteran big man who could score and rebound. The Sixers were mediocre—a 43-win team—but they had the star power to cause some problems.

Detroit spotted Philly a 28-16 lead after one quarter in Game 1, and then started to take over. The Pistons held the 76ers to 35 percent from the floor and outrebounded them 48-35. Ben Wallace had a big night with 29 points/10 rebounds. McDyess and Rasheed Wallace combined for 18 more rebounds, and Prince knocked down 23. The result was an easy 106-85 win.

Game 2 followed a similar pattern—give the Sixers the first-quarter lead and then take over with defense and rebounding. This time Hamilton and Billups supplied the offense, with 20-plus points each. Detroit held serve at home in winning 99-84.

They went to Philly and made a big mistake early—they got out to a fast start and led after the first quarter. This time the defense went soft, allowing 55 percent shooting from the floor in a 115-104 loss, and wasting a 29/16 night from Ben Wallace. But in Game 4, they got back to starting slow and then coming on. A tough battle went to overtime, but with Billups putting up 25 points/6 rebounds/7 assists, the Pistons got their road win, 97-92.

Detroit came back home and closed it out—they completed the strange formula of trailing after the first quarter in all of their wins and leading after one in their only loss. The Wallace boys combined for 22 rebounds, as the glass and defense compensated for a tough shooting night. The 88-78 win sent the Pistons on to the second round.

A familiar foe was up next. The Indiana Pacers had gone through something of a lost season after the Malice in the Palace. In addition to losing Artest for the year, they had suspensions to key players in Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal that totaled 45 games. O’Neal was one of the league’s top big men, averaging 24/9 per night. Jackson could score from the perimeter, averaging 19ppg. The Pacers were coached by Detroit’s old friend, Rick Carlisle.

The long suspensions kept Indiana’s record at a pedestrian 44-38, but other than Artest, everyone was playing now. They were more talented than the record showed and a tough matchup for this early in the playoffs.

Piston defense made the difference in Game 1. They forced 18 turnovers and held the Pacers 40 percent from the floor. With Hamilton pouring in 28, while Billups put up a 21 points/15 rebounds line, Detroit grabbed the opener 96-81. But this time, they couldn’t hold serve on their home floor. After taking a 15-point lead in the first quarter of Game 2, the Pistons went soft on the boards and lost 96-81.

A brutal defensive battle went down in Game 3 and Detroit took the worst of it. They only hit 3-for-16 from behind the arc and turned it over 17 times. A 79-74 loss put the championship bid in serious jeopardy. They had to get Game 4 on the road.

The championship veterans stepped up. Billups hit for 29 points. The Pistons rebounded like a hungry, desperate team, with Prince and both Wallaces getting double-digit boards. The 89-76 win reclaimed homecourt advantage.

Detroit defense dominated Game 5, and they cleaned up the misses to the tune of a 52-34 rebounding advantage. Ben Wallace went for 19/11 and Prince delivered a 16/12 night. The Pistons blew the game open in the third quarter and won 86-67.

Back in Indianapolis, Detroit trailed by seven at halftime of Game 6, and was still down a point going into the fourth quarter. But they were getting to the free throw line—or, more accurately, the Pacers were not. Detroit attempted 24 foul shots against just seven for Indiana, and that led to a 22-2 scoring edge. With Billups and Hamilton combining to score 51 points, the Pistons closed out the series, 88-79.

They were back in the conference finals and headed for Miami. The Heat had an all-time great at center in the 32-year-old Shaquille O’Neal. They had a rising star at guard in 23-year-old Dwayne Wade. And they seemed to be peaking at the right time, having swept through the first two playoff rounds with an 8-0 record.

But Detroit struck quickly. They forced Wade into a 7-for-25 night, got a 20/10 line from Rasheed and grabbed Game 1 on the road, 90-84. Game 2 was rough—Wade dropped 40, the Pistons only shot 38 percent, and they lost 92-86. But they got out of South Beach with a split.

Game 3 back at the Palace was a foul-riddled nightmare. The two teams combined to shoot 97 free throws, with 54 of them attempted by Miami. The Heat also hit 52 percent from the floor, the first time in this postseason Detroit let an opponent over the 50 percent threshold. Hamilton’s 33 points were trumped by Wade’s 36 and the Pistons gave homecourt advantage right back in a 113-104 loss.

Their back to the wall in Game 4 for a second straight series, Detroit again responded like champions. They played a sharp game, only turning it over six times. Hamilton knocked down 28, the Pistons took control and the 106-96 win evened up the series.

Back in Miami, Rip went cold in Game 5 and the defense again went soft, allowing 52 percent from the floor. Detroit lost 88-76. But in the process, Wade injured his shoulder. He would miss Game 6 back. On their home floor, the Pistons took advantage of the depleted opponent, keeping Miami to 41 percent from the floor. Hamilton continued his big series with 24 points and the 91-66 blowout forced a seventh game.

Wade was back in the lineup for Game 7. Whether it was the injury, or the battle-tested Detroit defense depends on perspective, but the hard numbers tell you he was forced into a 7-for-20 performance. In a game that was tight after three quarters, Detroit controlled the fourth quarter on the road. Hamilton’s 22 points on 11-for-16 shooting completed his great run through the conference finals. Rasheed Wallace was similarly clutch, hitting 8-for-13 and scoring 20 points. The final was 88-82 and the Pistons were going back to the NBA Finals.

A championship-credentialed foe awaited them. Tim Duncan had led the San Antonio Spurs to titles in 1999 and 2003, won a couple of MVP awards in the process and was the game’s best power forward. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili made for a terrific backcourt. Moreover, the Spurs had the best defensive efficiency ranking in the league.

Detroit had no answers for the San Antonio defense in the first two games on the road, scoring 69 in Game 1 and 74 in Game 2. The average margin of defeat was 18 points. The Pistons went home licking their wounds.

They started to find answers in Game 3, and it came through their time-honored methods of rebounding and defense. Detroit forced 18 turnovers, controlled the boards 44-37 and got a combined 44 from the Hamilton/Billups backcourt. They won 96-79, and then made it a series with a decisive 102-71 rout in Game 4 where the Pistons only turned the ball over three times.

Game 5 would be one of the most famous games in Finals history, although from the Detroit perspective it would be infamous. This game was in the Palace—the Finals were on a 2-3-2 schedule format from 1985 through 2013—and it went to overtime. The thing killing the Pistons is that they were cold from three-point range, going 2-for-9, while the Spurs had hit 11-for-20 going into the final possession. Even so, Detroit led 95-93 and just needed one defensive stop in the closing seconds of OT.

For some reason, a double-team left Robert Horry wide open. Merely one of the Spurs’ best three-point shooters and a man whose clutch skills were so renowned that he was nicknamed “Big Shot Rob.” Horry calmly drilled the trey. Detroit had lost and now needed to win two straight down in San Antonio.

It would have been easy to fold, and a lot of teams might have. Not the Pistons. Billups hit five treys in Game 6 to lead a 95-86 win. Then Detroit led by as many as nine in the third quarter of Game 7. No team had ever won two road Game 7s in the playoffs. But alas, the Pistons would not be the first. Duncan took the game over, and Detroit fell 81-74. The repeat bid had fallen short.

Brown, one of the most-traveled coaches in the history of any sport, left Detroit for what proved to be an ill-fated and disastrous run with the New York Knicks. Brown would not return to relevance until over 10 years later when he led SMU into the NCAA Tournament, and he never again coached an NBA contender.

As for the Pistons, they continued to be relevant and one of the league’s best teams for the next three years. But they kept finding disappointment in the conference finals. Detroit lost a rematch with Miami in 2006. The Pistons were on the wrong end of LeBron James’ breakout postseason moment in 2007 against Cleveland. And Detroit dropped a tough six-game series to the Boston Celtics of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett in 2008. The Pistons essentially fell off the NBA map after that. The quest for a return to the Finals continues in Motown.