By ANDREW SELIGMAN
The Associated Press
Friday, January 5, 2007; 4:12 PM
DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Ben Wallace figures the emotions will tug at him like an aggressive defender. Wallace will face his former Detroit teammates Saturday night for the first time since signing with Chicago in the offseason. And maybe he can put to rest the notion that there's lingering ill will.
"It's going to be emotional to go back out there and play against these guys that I went to war with for so many years," Wallace said of the game at the United Center. "But I think it's going to be good. When I left, there was a lot of stuff said about me abandoning the team, me and some players didn't get along.
"It'll just be good to show everybody that we're going to play hard against each other, but at the end of the day, we've still got much love for each other."
A four-time defensive player of the year, Wallace blossomed during his six seasons in Detroit _ a run that included a championship in 2004 and four selections to the All-Star game. He was the Pistons' star, but he reportedly did not get along with coach Flip Saunders and refused to re-enter a game in the fourth quarter last season.
There were also reports that Wallace wanted to be more involved in the offense, which he has called a misunderstanding, saying he just wanted to help set up teammates and not take more shots.
Meanwhile, the Bulls were looking for help down low and some veteran leadership after losing to eventual champion Miami in six games in the first round of the playoffs last season. Although Wallace didn't provide the scoring punch they lacked, he figured to strengthen a defense that was already good.
The marquee free agent, the Bulls signed him for four years and $60 million, but the transition hasn't been smooth.
Chicago struggled defensively early on, the perimeter players at times relying too heavily on Wallace to bail them out. The result was a 3-9 start for a team expected to contend in the Eastern Conference.
The frustration boiled over when Wallace violated a team rule by wearing a headband at New York on Nov. 25. It was a low point and, coincidentally, a turning point for Chicago.
Wallace was benched during that game, which the Bulls won 106-95. It started a turnaround for Chicago, at 19-13 entering Friday's game at New Jersey.
Luol Deng is enjoying a breakout season, averaging 18.1 points and 6.5 rebounds. Ben Gordon has seen his scoring average jump from 16.9 to 20.8, and the third-year pro is making a case for his second NBA sixth man of the year award.
He's 13th in the league at 9.9 rebounds and 10th in blocks at 1.97 per game _ not bad. But it's his worst season, statistically, since 1999-2000, when he averaged 8.2 and 1.6 for Orlando. His current scoring average is 6.8.
And opposing centers have put up some lofty numbers _ most recently by Amare Stoudemire, who scored 24 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in Phoenix's 97-96 victory on Tuesday.
Wallace shook it off, saying, "That's the makeup of their team. ... They've got so many guys you've got to be aware of, it's easy for (them) to get to the spots they want to get to."
But according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was only the third time an opposing center had that many points and rebounds in a game Wallace started. Patrick Ewing had 28 and 18 on April 7, 2000, when Wallace was with Orlando. And David Robinson had 29 points and 22 rebounds on Jan. 6, 2001, in a game against the Pistons.
Orlando's Dwight Howard (27 points, 11 rebounds on Nov. 1), Dallas' Erick Dampier (14 points, 13 rebounds on Nov. 14), Houston's Yao Ming (20 points, 12 rebounds on Nov. 16) and New York's Eddy Curry (24 points, eight rebounds on Nov. 28) have all had big games against Chicago this season.
Wallace has insisted since the headband incident that he's more comfortable with the Bulls, and it doesn't hurt that they're living up to their billing and challenging the Pistons.
"We've been more consistent for longer stretches," coach Scott Skiles said. "We're still not where we need to be, but we've definitely been better."
Wallace sees a young core maturing, communicating more and is not surprised by the results.
"We had to get a chance to know each other and really feel each other out as teammates and people," Wallace said. "People look at it on paper and say, 'They should be doing this; they should be doing that.' But until you get to know each other, you go through different spells. You go up and down."
He'll face a familiar group on Saturday night, and the Bulls don't visit Detroit until Feb. 25.
"I guess it will be good to let our fans boo them before I have an opportunity to let their fans boo me," Wallace said.