The Pistons know nothing is guaranteed them in the Eastern Conference. They’re also so supremely confident that their best basketball is better than anyone else’s that they wouldn’t much care who showed up to take them on in the NBA Finals from the ridiculously deep Western Conference. But they probably wouldn’t mind if that team turned up to the Phoenix Suns, who took a 22-2 record against the East into the game. The Pistons kicked off a rugged four-game Western road trip by winning for the seventh time in their last eight trips to Phoenix, this one at least as impressive as last year’s 22-point win accomplished without Chauncey Billups. Rasheed Wallace scored 22 points, one of six Pistons in double figures, and Jarvis Hayes’ season-high 18 points led a strong day for the bench. The bonus for the Pistons was dominating the game so thoroughly against a Western superpower that they got to rest their starters – nobody played more than Rip Hamilton’s (18 points) 32 minutes – with another tough game looming Monday night at Denver.
There were whispers coming out of Phoenix a few months back that the Suns were pondering making a play for Wallace, using Amare Stoudemire as the bait. Suns management might wish that was the deal they pursued more heavily than the one they wound up executing, Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal. Wallace was the best player on the floor Sunday – although Billups (14 points, 11 assists) was a pretty close second – as he knocked down 8 of 10 shots, a handful of them tough jumpers over outstretched hands, for 22 points to go along with eight rebounds in just 26 minutes
The Pistons are likely bringing in Dale Davis as veteran big man insurance, but Jason Maxiell continues to alleviate concerns about his relative lack of length being problematic for him. Maxiell spent a significant chunk of his 22 minutes guarding Shaquille O’Neal and did it more than credibly. Maxiell gave the Pistons four points and seven rebounds in the first half – O’Neal had three and seven in eight more minutes – and finished with six and eight.
The Pistons made a run at Grant Hill in free agency last summer but the Suns had a broader role in mind for him, so the Pistons wound up filling the void behind Tayshaun Prince (10 points) at small forward with Jarvis Hayes. Hill has stayed relatively injury-free and played well for Phoenix, but his slashing style might make him an odd fit next to O’Neal. He went scoreless against the Pistons, going 0 of 6 in 26 minutes.
Antonio McDyess doesn’t have to do a lot of scoring to prove his merit to the Pistons – he added another routine 13 rebounds and typical staunch defense against the Suns – but his ability to pull big men away from the basket to guard him or make them pay helped get the Pistons off on the right foot again. Billups found him inside when he lost O’Neal early, but McDyess also stepped out and knocked down two quick jumpers when O’Neal allowed him to roam, providing future Phoenix opponents a blueprint for attacking the Suns. Then again, not everyone has big men with the range and lateral foot speed of McDyess and Wallace.
After Phoenix sliced a 17-point deficit to six midway through the second quarter, Flip Saunders called timeout and brought his starting backcourt back into the game along with Wallace, Prince and one bench player – Amir Johnson. Johnson (five points, five boards, two blocks) helped turn the game back around as the Pistons went on a 12-0 run to close the half, starting it by collecting an offensive rebound and converting, grabbing a defensive rebound that resulted in a Billups transition basket and then filling a lane on a fast break that resulted in O’Neal administering a flagrant foul. Johnson also did the best job of anyone to that point containing Amare Stoudemire (31 points), whose hot shooting had led the Phoenix comeback.
Phoenix knew if it was going to get back in the game after going down by 18 at halftime, it would have to start fast in the third quarter. But four minutes into the third quarter, Billups fired a look-away bullet feed to Wallace for a dunk that put the Pistons up by 21, their largest lead of the game to that point. That brought out the boo-birds – and it wouldn’t be the last time. On Phoenix’s next possession, after the ball was knocked out of bounds, the Pistons forced the Suns into a rare five-second inbound violation. More boos. It wasn’t long before the Suns were down by 36.
Phoenix acknowledged the magnitude of the gamble it was taking by shipping Shawn Marion to Phoenix for Shaquille O’Neal, whose game at first blush appears an odd fit for the style Mike D’Antoni brought to the Suns. Because of the clashing cultures, it’s reasonable to assume that three games into the experiment is far too soon to judge it. But it had to be a little disquieting for the Suns to get destroyed at home – and on national television, no less – on a day and against a team they clearly had to regard as a litmus test.