Pistons Get Some Extra Help for the Long Haul

Richard Hamilton, left, has a championship ring from 2004, but he sure likes the lift from young teammates such as W┬┐lter Herrmann.
Richard Hamilton, left, has a championship ring from 2004, but he sure likes the lift from young teammates such as Walter Herrmann. (By Danny Moloshok -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

DENVER -- The Detroit Pistons feel confident that they can withstand a LeBron James onslaught or crash a Boston Three Party this postseason, and the reason was on the court, working up a sweat two hours before a game against the Denver Nuggets. A group of seven players with a combined 14 years of NBA experience and 34 career playoff games was jogging, skipping, laughing and working on one-on-one drills with Pistons assistants Michael Curry and Terry Porter.

Jason Maxiell, Amir Johnson, Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflalo, Jarvis Hayes, Juan Dixon and Walter Herrmann aren't expected to free Chauncey Billups from hitting big shots in crunch time, to run wild around the perimeter like Richard Hamilton, to hit wicked turnaround jumpers like Rasheed Wallace or shut down the opposing team's best offensive weapon like Tayshaun Prince. But they have kept the four starters from the Pistons' last NBA championship team from wearing down this season.

"I feel so fresh," Billups, 31, said. "We've played 50-something games, but I feel like I've played 20-something because I haven't logged a lot of minutes. That's going to work to our advantage."

Pistons Coach Flip Saunders has adhered to a front-office mandate to rely more on his second unit in hopes that the starters will save their energy to do what they do best, possibly into June. Detroit has made five consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals, two trips to the NBA Finals and won the title in 2004, but losses to Miami and Cleveland the last two years had the Pistons rethinking how to win without breaking up their core. Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars concluded that the team, specifically its starters, had nothing left when the conference finals began.

"We do feel like we ran out of gas last season and we did not want to put ourselves in the same position," Dumars wrote in an e-mail. "We've made a concerted effort to integrate our young guys into the mix. Our hope is that the young guys will be in a position to help us during the playoffs and the veterans will be more rested and ready come playoff time."

The Pistons still thrive on slights -- perceived and otherwise -- but these aren't the same old Pistons. They have some new, young reinforcements. An athletic, energetic bench, which Billups calls "The Zoo Crew," is averaging 26.7 points per game, which bests the scoring of the second unit led by Mehmet Okur and Mike James that helped Detroit win the championship four years ago.

Saunders had been criticized for over-using his starters in the past, especially two seasons ago, when the Pistons won a league-best 64 games and all but one starter averaged more than 35 minutes per game. Leaning on his young rotation -- Stuckey and Afflalo are rookies, Johnson is in his third year but is playing for the first time -- has led to some anxious moments.

There have been games, like a 30-point win in Phoenix on Feb. 24, when the second unit has performed well. Then, there are nights such as losses to Milwaukee and Orlando in the first two games after the all-star break, when the bench struggled. "That's all part of the growth process," Saunders said.

But while the youngsters gain invaluable experience, the older starters -- Prince is the only first-teamer under 30 -- put less strain on their bodies. Starters Billups, Hamilton, Wallace, Prince and Antonio McDyess average between 34.4 and 30.5 minutes per game and each has seen his minutes reduced by at least two minutes from last season. Spread out over an entire season, Saunders said, that amounts to six or seven games.

San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich uses a similar philosophy, and it has resulted in his team winning three of the past five NBA championships. For a Pistons team that has played more games than any other team the past six seasons -- 566 (469 in the regular season, another 97 in the playoffs) -- cutting back regular season minutes seems a bit overdue. Hamilton, who has joined Billups in three consecutive All-Star Games, said he usually looked forward to the midseason break to get some rest. "This year, it was like, 'Keep on playing,' " Hamilton said.

More rest has led to more smiles for Wallace, too. After leading the league in technical fouls in each of the past three seasons, Wallace is on pace to have just 13 this season, which would be his fewest in five years. He also appears to be growing stronger as the season progresses, averaging 14.9 points in the past 17 games, with the Pistons winning 14 of those contests.

"We want to play our best ball late," Saunders said.

At some point after James scorched them for 48 points in Game 5 of the conference finals and the Boston Celtics teamed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen with Paul Pierce, the prosperity-phobic Pistons became underdogs again -- in their minds, at least. Although they have closed within 3 1/2 games of the Celtics -- whom they will face on Wednesday -- for the league's best record, the Pistons still like to play the no-respect card.

"Even if we do take that top spot, it's not going to be 'Detroit's got the number one record in the league.' It's going to be, 'Dang, the Celtics are fading,' " Billups said. "That's perfect for us. We can take that hunted mode we like to be in. We like to be the hunter."

Some things never change.

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