Surprise: Retooled Pistons take charge in Central

ON THE NBA

Pro Basketball

March 10, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

Call the Detroit Pistons the stealth contenders.

The Pistons weren't expected to be much more than an afterthought in the Central Division, fodder for the defending division champion Milwaukee Bucks and the seemingly more talented Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers.

Yet, while the Bucks have bickered among themselves, the Raptors have been reeling of late and the Pacers have remade their roster in a trade-deadline deal, the Pistons have quietly pushed their way to the top of the division. They have a chance to catch the New Jersey Nets for best record in the Eastern Conference.

"They really move the ball," Washington coach Doug Collins said before Thursday night's game in which the Pistons beat the Wizards at the buzzer. "They've got the weapons on the outside, so it's tough to really guard the post, because they have the three-point shooting, and all their guys can shoot the three.

"Jon Barry has been a big addition, and he plays a lot of crunch-time minutes, so they have him out there with one of the point guards and [Jerry] Stackhouse and Cliff Robinson. Now there's four guys that you've got to guard and Ben Wallace, who does a great job on the offensive boards and has been a much-improved offensive player."

The Pistons, who were as drab a unit as existed in the NBA last season, slogged their way to a 32-50 season that landed the team in fifth place in the Central Division and got coach George Irvine fired.

But Joe Dumars, the certified Good Guy among the legendary "Bad Boys" who won back-to-back titles in the late 1980s, in his role as president of basketball operations, tweaked the Detroit lineup. He got Barry in an off-season trade with the Sacramento Kings for little-used Mateen Cleaves for reserve help. It was Barry who beat Washington on Thursday with a three-pointer at the horn.

Dumars also acquired backup center Zeljko Rebraca from Toronto for a second-round pick, and has watched Wallace, a former Wizards forward, blossom into a solid player. The much-traveled Robinson has played some of the best basketball of his career.

As a result, Detroit has already won more games this season than it did all of last season. Much of the credit for the Motown turnaround should go to new coach Rick Carlisle, a former Boston Celtics reserve and highly regarded assistant coach under Larry Bird with the Pacers.

Carlisle, in his first head-coaching job, has instilled a tough work ethic in the Pistons, who are third in the league in defense, and he has used his young, athletic team to its best.

At the heart of the change is Stackhouse, who, in his seventh season, is having his best all-around year, playing fewer minutes, but dishing out more assists than any other shooting guard in the East.

Stackhouse, who was previously considered a trigger-happy gunner only interested in his own stats, has become a team player, and the Pistons are better for it.

"He's taking seven or eight less shots per game. He's playing five less minutes per game on average," Carlisle said. "He's playing much better defensively. I think he's playing at a higher level in terms of his intensity. Even though he's playing less minutes, he's generating a lot for us. He's eclipsed his career high in assists twice, during a week in December. He's a guy that I think is more than anything hungry to win."

Quiz

Name the only team in the league that has a winning record on the road and a losing record at home this season.

Waiting for Jordan

Collins says Michael Jordan is feeling "frisky" as he rehabs his ailing right knee from a cartilage tear and is giving him and trainer Steve Stricker jovial grief during his workouts.

No one has put a firm timetable on Jordan's return from the injured list, where he landed Feb. 26, and Collins is downplaying speculation that Jordan will come back during the team's nine-day, six-game Western swing, saying it's way too soon.

Hmm. If that's the case, then why is Jordan making the trip? Collins says he asked Jordan, who presumably will continue to rehab while traveling, to go to provide inspiration to the team, which has played well in his absence.

That's all well and good, but no one should be surprised if Jordan pronounces himself fit and ready to play by, say, next Wednesday or Thursday at Denver or Utah.

Single-digit message

Just a hunch, but Nets point guard Jason Kidd might very well consider the $5,000 fine he got from the league office well worth the cost. Kidd was fined for his single-finger salute to Phoenix fans upon his return Wednesday for the first time after the off-season trade that sent Stephon Marbury west.

When the Nets played host to Phoenix in December, Kidd directed a verbal blast at then-Suns coach Scott Skiles over published remarks Skiles made about the point guard's tenure in the Valley of the Sun. Phoenix fans allegedly responded in kind to Kidd, telling him that he should keep missing shots "like you used to do here."

The taunting may have had an effect Wednesday, since Kidd shot 4-for-18 for 10 points, to go along with 11 rebounds and eight assists in the Nets' 89-87 loss.

Quiz answer

The Charlotte Hornets are 17-14 on the road and 12-18 at home through last night's games.

Quote

"I know I'm probably going to be bored. I've been doing this so long that there will be an adjustment period. I'll play golf, tennis. I'll probably lower the rim on my backyard court to about 8 1/2 feet and invite the neighborhood kids over and dunk on 'em. `Let me show you what I used to do.' " - Phoenix veteran Dan Majerle, regarding his impending retirement.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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