Monday, April 27, 2009
The 2008-09 Detroit Pistons can finally be laid to rest. The Chauncey Billups trade stunned them, the inexperience of Michael Curry wobbled them further, and finally on Sunday, the Cleveland Cavaliers delivered the final knockout blow. I'm not here to break down what went wrong in this blur of a 4-game series. The Pistons were severely outmanned, and regardless of what a blood test might otherwise indicate, it's quite clear that LeBron James is Tayshaun Prince's daddy. But I couldn't help but notice one thing as this mini-dynasty made their final exit. While Antonio McDyess soaked himself dry of any energy that remained in his 34-year old body, and Rip Hamilton repeatedly tried to find his stroke, and Tayshaun Prince labored through 32 minutes despite barely being able to move...there was Rasheed Wallace. Just chillin'.
Nobody had any grand illusions of the Pistons coming back in this series. I don't think anyone even thought they could steal a win on Sunday. The final result was a formality. But as a fan of any professional sports team, you still expect a professional effort. Rasheed Wallace gave no such thing. He loafed up and down the court. When he was involved defensively in a pick-and-roll, he would do one of two things. Either he let the dribbler go right on by, skipping alongside offering no resistance. Or he would "act" like he cared, and just get right up on the guy by slapping and hacking until a whistle was blown. Sheed must have figured the quicker he racked up the fouls, the quicker he could go take a seat. His attention to the defensive glass was especially hard to watch. As was the case all series long, the Cavs would jack up a wayward 3, and Anderson Varejao would be tracking the ball at full speed by the time it rimmed off. Where was Rasheed? Just watchin'.
If you've followed the Pistons for the last handful of years, you know what to expect from Rasheed on the offensive end. The allergic reaction to the paint, the forced looks from downtown, and the failure to ever really try and attack the guy guarding him. It was classic Sheed all series, and he put it all together in Game 4. Coming into the matchup with Cleveland, some thought that the one advantage the Pistons would have was with Varejao trying to contain the multi-talented Wallace. That might have been the case...if it were 10 years ago...or if Rasheed cared in the least. Sheed would play in the post on occasion, only to face up and fire a contested 16-footer without even entertaining the thought of making his defender work to get a stop. Somehow, he managed to play significant minutes in all four of the playoff games without once going to the free throw line. 122 total minutes of court time and the man never got to the stripe. You almost have to go out of your way to achieve such an embarrassing feat. In the finale against the Cavs, Rasheed would attempt 7 shots, all misses, while failing to register a single point in a game for the first time all season. So much for saving your best for last.
Early in the 3rd quarter on Sunday, one sequence transpired that fully represented Sheed's lifeless performance. The Stones were trying to scratch their way back in the game, scoring the first 4 points of the half to cut it to a five point lead. The Cavs decided to run a little two-man game at the top of the key. Sheed got switched on to the guard, and essentially watched as the man dribbled right by, slowly shuffling his feet to at least feign the appearance of effort being exerted. Help defense came to bail out Sheed, and the ball was kicked out to a wide open Mo Williams. Fortunately for Wallace, the shot was no good and the rebound fell right in to his hands. He had not played good D, but the Pistons had the ball back with a chance to make things interesting. He gave it up to his point guard Stuckey, and yet even with the camera starting to pan back the other way to follow the Pistons on offense, I could see Sheed on the far right side of the screen. He'd already delivered the outlet pass, and the Pistons were moving up court, but he was still standing in the same place. He was trying to figure out whether it was worth it to chug the 40-50 feet to the top of the key where he usually sets up shop. Finally, after the Pistons had already begun their offensive set, Sheed came back in the picture. Sure enough, he stopped dead in his tracks a few feet behind the 3-point arc, waited for the ball to be swung his way, and let fly with an errant, ill-advised brick from 27 feet that epitomized the type of selfishness he's so often displayed during his 14-year NBA career. Nothing says "hustle" like being the last guy down the court and the first to hoist upon touching the rock. About 90 seconds later, even the normally oblivious Curry could sense that Rasheed had no interest in playing, and yanked him in favor of Jason Maxiell.
With his contract expiring, this was likely Rasheed Wallace's final appearance in the Pistons red, white, and blue. He will leave behind a mixed legacy. One, of the missing piece that was finally added to complete the 2004 championship team. And another, of the boorish, oft-complaining, "when things get tough, I become invisible" side that reared its ugly head on Sunday. While his lethargic play was impossible to ignore, it was his facial expression throughout the day that was most telling. There was no emotion, no passion, no nothing. Just pure disinterest. I thought back to 2007, the last time the Cavs eliminated the Pistons from the playoffs.
Sheed and the Pistons were down 3-2 in the series, but trailed by just one entering the 4th. However, slowly but surely, the game started slipping away. Daniel Gibson started raining 3s, Rasheed continued to struggle (finished 5-14), and it was a double digit game in the blink of an eye. He kept picking up fouls, and eventually picked up his 6th with about eight minutes to play. The Cleveland fans were going berserk, and the Pistons knew that the series was over. Rasheed would be forced to sit on the bench with the rest of his teammates and absorb the pain that goes with being knocked out just short of the NBA Finals. Only that aint Sheed's style. When he was whistled for that 6th personal foul, he had a tantrum. Off went the headband, out came the obscenities. While it was still a semi-manageable 12-point deficit and a technical would do nobody any good, Sheed pressed on. Finally, he got his wish and Eddie Rush ejected him from the game. To the locker room he went, where he would see a stat sheet telling him he collected a total of two rebounds in 30 minutes during the most critical game of the year. When those agonizing last few minutes were played out and the Pistons' fate was sealed, Sheed was nowhere to be found.
Which brings us back to the here and now. In Game 4, Sheed remained ejection-free and was present for all 48 minutes. Technically, at least. While the referees forced him to leave two years ago, this time Sheed took care of it all by himself. He might have physically showed up at the Palace and stayed on the court for the duration of the game, but for all intents and purposes, he walked out on his team just like he did that night in Cleveland. Only this time, thankfully, he's never coming back.
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