Pistons 83, Pacers 65
-- Just more than a year ago, the Detroit Pistons surprisingly fired Coach Rick Carlisle after his 50-win team was knocked out of the Eastern Conference finals, a run of success even the most optimistic observer could not have expected after the team traded away franchise lynchpin Jerry Stackhouse to Washington for upstart swingman Richard Hamilton before the season.
Now the Pistons are just one victory away from validating both moves.
Behind Hamilton's 33 points in Sunday night's 83-65 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals at Conseco Fieldhouse, Detroit moved one victory from playing in its first NBA championship since claiming the league title in 1990. The Larry Brown-coached Pistons, who lead the best-of-seven series 3-2, can close things out Tuesday, at home, against a Pacers team Carlisle coached to an NBA-best 61 regular season victories but also a team that trailed by as much as 18, never led and registered a franchise low Sunday in postseason scoring.
"The only guy that we really had no answer for was Hamilton," Carlisle said. "We threw a lot of guys at him. He was just that good tonight. I know how good he is. He was a big-time, clutch player for us last year and he is showing it again this year."
Hamilton, one of four former Washington Wizards on Detroit's roster, was sensational in bringing the Pistons to the threshold of a series against the winner of the Los Angeles Lakers-Minnesota Timberwolves Western Conference final. He scored 24 points in the second and third quarters, dropping in runners and slashing layups on a Kobe Bryant-like tear.
"I love these situations," Hamilton said. "I love the playoffs, I love the postseason, I loved it since college. I never got the opportunity to play in Washington. But I was just watching, licking my chops. Once I got here, getting in a good situation, having the opportunity to play in postseason, I just excel at it."
"Rip has been so consistent through the playoffs," Brown said. "When a guy like him starts scoring like he did tonight, the defense reacts and that gives other guys opportunities."
Hamilton inflicted most of his damage with Reggie Miller guarding him, a strategy that raised eyebrows since the NBA's defensive player of the year, Ron Artest, was guarding point guard Chauncey Billups, who has not been the scoring threat Hamilton has been.
Carlisle switched Artest to Hamilton with just more than five minutes left in the third quarter and the move worked, as Hamilton had just four points after the adjustment. Ironically, it was Billups, guarded by Anthony Johnson, who later made the shot that finally broke the Pacers.
Carlisle did not specifically address the strategy but he took blame for not having his team prepared for a game of this magnitude.
"There are nights when you have to look yourself in the mirror and say you didn't get the job done," Carlisle said of himself.
Indiana had pulled to 64-59 early in the fourth period behind another round of strong play from its reserves. But a long jumper from Billups after two Rasheed Wallace free throws extended Detroit's lead to 69-59 with just under eight minutes left. The Pacers could not recover. A 20-foot jumper by Wallace with just less than three minutes remaining put the Pistons up 76-63 and thwarted any hopes of an Indiana miracle.
"I don't think it was a letdown but obviously we didn't bring the same energy we played with in Detroit," Miller said. "With the things that were successful in Detroit, moving the basketball, we didn't do that tonight. We made it hard on ourselves because Detroit plays such great team defense. It's a team we've got to move the basketball against. Most of our principles went out the window tonight."
A group of more than 100 Pistons fans were about the only people making noise over the final minute and, while they cheered their team, they also were bold enough to taunt the once-rabid Pacers fans as they exited the arena well before the final horn.
Rasheed Wallace finished with 22 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocked shots and forward Ben Wallace had just one point but recorded game-highs of 12 rebounds and five blocked shots for Detroit.
Backup guard Fred Jones and Artest led the Pacers with 13 points apiece. Forward Jermaine O'Neal, bothered by a sprained and bruised left knee which he had drained before the game, spent most of the night in foul trouble and finished with just 11 points and six rebounds. Miller had just five points.
Detroit built a 16-point lead in the third quarter after holding the Pacers to just nine points over the first half of the period while scoring with relative ease. Hamilton scored 11 points in the quarter and Rasheed Wallace made the three-pointer that put them up 58-43. A free throw from Ben Wallace gave Detroit its biggest lead at 59-43.
Indiana made a late run behind its reserves to close to 62-53, which provided the momentum that helped it pull to 64-57 early in the fourth, but the Pistons were too poised and the Pacers too overwhelmed.