Thursday, February 5, 2009

An Easy Guy to Root For

It has been a popular refrain among Pistons fans for the last couple of years. "They just don't want to seem to want it anymore." Losses in the Eastern Conference Finals have become the norm and fans often wonder if the desire is still there from these Pistons to reach the pinnacle again. Even this season, with the addition of perennial all-star Allen Iverson expected to rejuvenate the team's energy and passion, they have looked disinterested and emotionless for much of the year. All except for one guy. In case you have not noticed, Antonio McDyess is leaving absolutely everything on the court at the end of each game. I cannot remember a guy working harder game in and game out during an NBA regular season. He is playing every game as if it could be his last. For a guy that originally hails from a town called "Quitman, Mississippi," he is the exact opposite. If you need a reminder why you should keep rooting for this team during this tumultuous year, just take a look at #24. He is playing his heart out.

When Joe Dumars went out and signed Antonio McDyess after winning the 2004 championship, many fans had the same initial reaction: "Why"? Why sign a guy who has had major injury problems, including a severe knee injury causing him to miss a full season and large parts of two others? Why sign a guy that used to rely on explosiveness and athleticism when much of those attributes are now gone? Dumars had his reasons. The Pistons had just reached the top of the basketball world by smoking the Lakers in the '04 Finals. By bringing in McDyess, there would be a renewed sense of urgency from everyone, as in, "Let's get one for Dyess...he wasn't here last time." Joe D also believed, despite everyone else's objections, that McDyess could get healthy and remain healthy. Shocking the basketball world, he has indeed been the model of good health in his 4-plus years in Detroit. Who would have thought this guy's lowest game total for a year would be 77, while twice appearing in all 82 contests? Most stories have a silver lining, as this one indeed does. While he has been extremely fortunate to remain injury-free in his time with the Pistons, with that good fortune has come bitter disappointment in the form of NBA playoff elimination each spring. He's still the one without a ring.

Mention the 2005 NBA Finals to a Pistons fan. One thing usually comes to mind immediately. Game 5...Rasheed...Horry...ballgame. In a nutshell, that was the series. Or so everyone is led to believe. That loss, while as devastating a loss that any team could experience, did not decide the series. The Pistons stormed into San Antonio and snatched Game 6. It was now a one game series. Winner take all. And to nobody's surprise, Antonio McDyess came with everything he had in Game 7. He was magnificent. Burying his patent fadeaway on the left baseline, hitting the offensive and defensive glass harder than anyone else on the floor, dishing to Big Ben for easy dunks, blocking shots...he was doing everything. When Rasheed Wallace picked up his 4th foul early in the 3rd, the score was tied. And you know who was entering the game. I always felt that if the Spurs were given an option at that point to remove two of Wallace's fouls and let him stay on the court instead of bringing in McDyess, they would have agreed without an ounce of trepidation. You just didn't wanna mess with Antonio in Game 7. It was his night. Or at least it should have been.

As the 3rd quarter wore on, a pattern was starting to emerge. The Pistons were taking control of this game. A 9-0 run culminating in an easy layup for McDyess had the San Antonio fans nearly silent. Not ones to go away softly, Duncan and Ginobili teamed up for 7 straight of their own. Larry Brown called timeout. The lead was down to 2, and the crowd was practically tearing the roof off of the SBC Center. The Pistons needed a bucket in the worst way. Out of the T.O., our man cans a 20-footer. Nails. Nobody wanted it more. Another Dyess board. Tay with a jumper, and the lead was 6 again. You got the feeling that the Pistons had taken the Spurs best shot, and managed to steal the momentum right back. We were 16 minutes from back-to-back titles. Then came one of the most questionable coaching decisions in basketball history.

McDyess picked up his 4th foul with about 4 minutes to go in the 3rd. comes Lindsey Hunter jumping up off the bench. This was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. There was just over a quarter of basketball left to decide a champion. If you asked anyone who had been the best Piston to that point in the game, the answer would be simple: Antonio McDyess. The only way that decision makes any sense is if Larry Brown was planning on inserting Dyess at the beginning of the 4th quarter, and he wanted to make sure he still had 2 fouls to work with. Get him out now for the rest of the 3rd, try and keep the cushion, and bring him back to start the final quarter. But even trying to justify the move with that line of thinking is flawed. The Pistons were in control, on the road, with limited time remaining in the most important game of the entire season. And we were willingly removing our best player from the lineup because he had 4 fouls? A guy that had fouled out exactly one time in the last 89 games? There has never been a more appropriate situation to say, "If we lose this game, it's gonna be with our best players on the court." The rest of the night is still blurry in my mind...everything happened so fast.

Much like the Pistons of this year, the small lineup LB employed (Chauncey, Lindsey, Rip, Tay, Ben) to end that 3rd was a disaster. The 6 point lead McDyess left with evaporated and the game was deadlocked heading into the 4th. Only, McDyess was still stapled to the bench. You'd have thought his removal in the 3rd was strictly done so he could come back aggressively to start the 4th. Incorrect. Larry Brown left him sitting there, unable to help his team win the title that he so desperately craved. Rasheed Wallace now played in his stead. The same Rasheed Wallace that had left Robert Horry alone at the end of Game 5 and would total exactly one rebound in this deciding contest. Duncan took over from there, either scoring or drawing double teams to allow for open 3's. Bowen...Horry...more Manu...the game that had once looked so promising was now turning into a nightmare. By the time Coach Brown decided it was safe to allow Antonio McDyess to reenter with his 4 fouls, half the quarter was gone and the 6 point lead he'd left with was now a 6 point deficit. It was uneventful from there. McDyess stayed on the court for all of 3 minutes, took 1 shot, and was removed for good. The Spurs ended up winning by 7, a 13 point swing from the moment McDyess was yanked in the 3rd.

After 109 basketball games over an 8-month span, the Pistons had reached Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and had a 6 point lead with just 16 minutes to play. And they ended up having their best player on the court for 3 of those minutes. It was a maddening and indefensible coaching decision by Larry Brown that can never be justified.

There is just something about the way McDyess is playing these days that tends to conjure up these memories. While many players seem to officially be in "All-Star break mode" already, there's McDyess tonight, ripping down 17 rebounds off the bench. Going after every carom off the rim whether he was in position or not. While the double-digit scoring games are now few and far between, there is still something special watching McDyess outplay guys 10 years his junior on a nightly basis, mostly on will and determination alone. In a sports world where holdouts, arrests, and drugs dot the headlines each morning, here is just a guy simply doing everything in his power to win. He was so close to finally claiming the ultimate prize on that fateful June night four years ago, only to see his big moment in the spotlight ripped from his clutches. This year's Pistons might be flawed, they might lack a certain chemistry, and they will probably be heavy underdogs come playoff time. None of that matters to Antonio McDyess...he's still missing that ring.

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