I know they are just not good enough. I know they are dealing with a far superior team. I know that the other team has the best player in the world. So no, I am not here to suggest that the Pistons should beat the top seeded Cavs in this series. But I can't with a good conscience sit here and not address the mysterious disappearance of Will Bynum, unquestionably the team's most valuable player in the last month of the season. Rookie head coach Michael Curry has essentially relegated Bynum to a few spot minutes here and there, somehow dismissing or forgetting all that the little guy did for the team down the stretch.
You can go all the way back to the beginning of the season. That is when we first realized that Will Bynum was a legitimate player, and not some basketball nomad that was simply happy to be collecting an NBA paycheck. This guy could ball. In the first game following the trade of Chauncey Billups, and before Allen Iverson had arrived, Bynum was forced into action. Despite not appearing in the team's first two games, Will "The Thrill" (not to be confused with Will "The Thrill" Clark of baseball fame) didn't miss a beat. He racked up 12 points to go with 4 assists in just 23 minutes. Over the next few weeks, Bynum's minutes would be yanked around, with no real pattern forming. He could sit for a week, then play for a few straight games. And it was not for a lack of production. Bynum had mind-boggling box score lines like "10 points and 2 assists in 8 minutes," taken from a close victory over Indiana in December. Still, Curry failed to give Bynum a true role on the team, stapling him to the bench for most of the next two months.
And while he might not have the classic NBA pedigree (lottery pick, All-Rookie teams), the man has a classic NBA game. He is one of the five quickest players in the league (no joke). He is deadly on the high pick-and-roll. If he gets in the paint, you might as well put two on the board. He works very hard on the defensive end, and will noticeably snarl when one of his teammates is lazy and allows an open shot. His jump shot still needs work, but he is relatively comfortable from inside of 15 feet. Also, with his aggressiveness usually comes plenty of free throw attempts, where Bynum checks in at an impressive 80% clip. And there's just a certain swagger. A confidence that says, "I couldn't care less whether I was drafted or how many teams I've played for in the last five years. I'm gonna outwork you, outplay you, and beat you every time we step on the floor."
The Allen Iverson "back injury/quitting/not willing to play a reserve role" saga did bring one good thing back into our lives: Will Bynum. Curry finally had no choice but to play him. What happened next came as no surprise to Pistons fans that had been witness to Bynum's solid play earlier in the year. He started producing every single night. Abusing Stephon Marbury in a victory at Boston. 19 points in a wild 4th quarter comeback attempt in Dallas. First start of his career...22 and 6 in a shellacking of the Clippers. Consecutive performances against two playoff teams (Lakers, Bulls) when Bynum combined for 45 points and 20 assists. He shot 48% from the field for the month of March, and 85 from the line. He was no longer "just a little burst of energy" off the bench. Bynum had become the team's most important player.
When Rip Hamilton returned to the team after missing several games with a groin strain, Curry mindlessly slashed Will's minutes again. Soon, the Pistons success was almost a matter of whether Curry would allow Bynum enough time on the floor to secure the win. In the season's pivotal playoff-chase moment, the Pistons were hosting the Bobcats, the team breathing down their neck for the final postseason spot. After three quarters, Bynum had played just 14 minutes, and the Pistons trailed by one. We all know what happened next. Bynum proceeded to set the all-time franchise record for points in a quarter, pouring in 26 during the final 12 minutes, and finishing with a career-high 32. He was unstoppable. When the Bobcats backed off, he slayed them with drives. When they got too close, he drew contact and marched to the line for 16 free throws in the final quarter alone. The ironic note about this historic quarter is that it most likely never would have occurred if Rip Hamilton not been ejected at the end of the third. Michael Curry would have robotically removed Bynum from the game despite his heroics, most likely replacing him with Hamilton or Rodney Stuckey, both players that struggled mightily throughout the night. The franchise mark would not have been touched and the game might very well have ended with a different result. But thankfully, the ejection saved Michael Curry from himself as he was almost forced to let Bynum play big minutes. However, as was the case all year, Bynum was only days away from getting demoted again.
The Bulls came to town in the second to last game of the year. A matchup with Cleveland awaited the loser. Coach Curry decided it was best to sit Will Bynum for extended stretches of the contest. He played just 11 minutes, his lowest total in 23 games. The Pistons lost. When the playoffs kicked off on Saturday, I hoped things would be different. I hoped Bynum would get the opportunity he so rightfully earned. I hoped Curry would just throw his hands up and say, "You know what? The guy's been my best player for the last quarter of the season! One way or another, he's playing 30-35 minutes a night from here on in." None of those things happened.
Bynum saw a few minutes in the 2nd quarter and provided a boost. He entered again to start the 4th and led a mini-run. He fed Rasheed for a triple, got himself a couple of buckets, and a 13 point Cavs advantage was now just 8. When Mike Brown called timeout to quell the momentum, Bynum walked back to the bench with a telling expression on his face. It said, "Yeah, we're coming back now, but where was I before??" It was not a selfish look...just complete exasperation from a guy wanting to help his team and only being given a fixed amount of time to do so. The eight point margin was as close as they got. Curry gave Bynum the hook a couple minutes later and that was pretty much it. A little more court time in the waning moments ended up padding his minute total, but for all intents and purposes, he played about 10 meaningful minutes (14 total). It's inexplicable...inexcusable... and completely unacceptable.
As stated before, I have no grand illusions about the Pistons stealing this series. They are outmatched in talent, desire, and anything else you want to add to the list. It's not their year. But there is no excuse for the way that Michael Curry has, and continues to, mismanage Will Bynum's time on the floor. The team plays with greater energy and an increased sense of urgency when he is in the game. His excellent play during the season's home stretch is a large reason why they are even in the postseason to begin with. If this series is to become competitive at any point, Will Bynum must be prominently involved. Otherwise, the Pistons will vanish without so much as a whimper, and I will spend the summer months reading this column over and over while crying myself to sleep. So get Will Bynum out there, Coach...for my sake.
Best Game of the Weekend- Philadelphia at Orlando
An unbelievable Philadelphia comeback and a monumental Orlando collapse in the 4th quarter of this game. After a couple of Dwight Howard free throws with about a minute to in the 3rd, the Magic held an 18 point advantage. They had all the momentum in the world, the crowd was on their feet, and the Sixers looked resigned to simply calling it a night and hoping to even things up in Game 2. But in a stunning turnaround that was undoubtedly the highlight of the opening weekend, the 76ers stormed back with huge contributions from the unlikeliest of sources.
Leading up to the playoffs, the High Socks Legend expressed the recent amazement that was felt when seeing just how big Donyell Marshall had gotten in the last couple years. Several reasons were offered as to how he might have packed on the poundage: change of teams...less exercise...possible cannibalism. But regardless, one thing about our man will never, ever, change. The man can shoot the 3-ball. In the 4th quarter on Sunday, big fella was up to his old tricks.
After it looked like the Sixers might make a serious push to start the final quarter, Anthony Johnson drilled a huge 3 for the Magic to stretch the lead back out to 14. With only about 9 minutes to play, that shot looked like it might be the one to take any remaining wind out of the Philadelphia sails. But Marshall answered right back with a corner bomb to make things interesting again. The quarter continued, with Philly still chipping away, but unable to get over the hump. Then the Magic finally got a clutch shot of their own, as Rashard Lewis banged home a 3 to push the lead back out to five. Not so fast. Donyell went and hid in his favorite little corner, took a pass from the heady Andre Miller, and canned his 2nd triple of the quarter (both Orlando 3s in the period were immediately answered by Donyell triples).
But as is usually the case with an 18-point deficit, it can be extremely difficult to get all the way back and tie it up or take the lead. Orlando had assumed a four point cushion again, and was looking for one big stop at the 2 minute mark. The Sixers swung the ball around the perimeter, eventually finding Chubbs Marshall spotting up for another trey. Only this time, the Magic's Courtney Lee recognized the hot hand and closed out hard, forcing Marshall to put the ball on the floor. It was soon apparent that our man was uncomfortable trying to dribble, especially considering he hasn't stepped inside of the 3-point arc since 2003. After a few awkward dribbles toward the free throw line, Donyell elevated and heaved an ugly one-hander towards the hoop. Proving that this was indeed Philly's night, the ball crashed off the glass and somehow found its way through the basket.
Despite all of Marshall's heroics, the 76ers were still trailing by three with about 45 ticks left on the clock. Common sense says, "Get Marshall a good look at a long ball...the man is on fire!" But Philly chose to roll the dice with Andre Iguodola and he responded by bricking a 3 off the side of the rim. Theo Ratliff (who was also tremendous in the final quarter) scrapped for the offensive board, and restarted the possession. This time, the 76ers did things right. Andre Miller rocked the dribble, drew a mini double team, and fired a perfect cross court pass to the waiting hands of the one and only Donyell Marshall. He let fly with one more picture-perfect rainbow from deep. The ball nestled through the twine, the game was tied, and the 17 thousand fans at the O-Rena could only slink back in their seats and think, "We were 59 and 23, and we are getting our a** kicked by Donyell Marshall!!??"
The Sixers finally grabbed the lead for good with under five seconds left. Iguodola isolated on Hedo Turkoglu and buried an in-your-face step back from just inside the arc, flashing an ice-cold stare to the deflated Orlando crowd for one final dagger. The comeback was complete. And while Marshall gets most of the ink on the High Socks Legend pages, sufficient credit must also be given to Iguodola, who played as hard as any player I've seen in some time during that deciding quarter. Anytime the Magic missed a shot down the stretch, which happened often, Iguodola would turn into a heat-seeking missile, ferociously chasing down the rebound. He refused to allow Orlando a second opportunity on his watch. I know Iguodola has always been a very talented player, and a potential All-Star, but he really grew up tonight. It was as determined a 4th quarter performance by one player that you will see in these playoffs.
It's games like this that make the NBA Playoffs so good. The intensity is amped up to the max, and even an 18-point deficit late in the 3rd quarter is not insurmountable. After a dominant regular season, most NBA pundits had the Magic strolling on to the 2nd round with little resistance from the 76ers. After 35 minutes Sunday night, those predictions looked to be 100% accurate. But then Theo Ratliff came alive (literally...he had been cryogenized for the last 18 months), Andre Iguodola morphed into some kind of superhero, and the High Socks Legend's prodigal son, Donyell Marshall, decided to turn back the clock one more time. And I couldn't be prouder.
Most Enjoyable Coach to Watch Suffer
Speaking of the Orlando debacle, there is no better coach to view during a meltdown than Stan Van Gundy. As the lead slowly dwindled away and Van Gundy continued to lose his cool, I imagine his 4th quarter statistics ended up looking something like this.
14- Pounds lost from excessive sweating.
27- "Bison Dele-Tom Izzo Faces" in which he got as close as humanly possible to crying without actually releasing any tears.
3- "On-Court Timeouts" following Philadelphia baskets when he became so disgusted that he was already on the court signaling for another timeout with the ball still going through the net.
14- Pounds immediately regained during the postgame spread when Van Gundy requested his own personal cold cut platter, and "any soft pretzels that still remained in the building."
Last Game of the Weekend...Why Not Save the Best for Last??
The best individual performance of the weekend came courtesy of an old friend. When the Hornets and Nuggets tipped off late Sunday night, many Detroiters were already tucked in. Boy, did they miss a show.
Chauncey Billups was on a mission. Simple as that. Sixteen points in the first quarter. 4 of 4 from downtown. The Pepsi Center crowd was beginning to realize they were in for a memorable night. The 2nd half started and Chauncey got it cookin' again. Three after three after three. The roof was practically coming off of the arena now. Late in the quarter, Denver had a numbers advantage for a probable easy layup. Chauncey had other ideas. He let the cutters fly by, stopped on a dime, and unloaded another 3...CASHHHH!! It was his third triple of the quarter and seventh of the game. The rout was officially on. The roar of the crowd was starting to increase with each subsequent Chauncey bucket. Marv Albert's voice box was about to explode. Byron Scott frantically called for a timeout, if not to settle his own team down, to at least calm the fans a bit and try to cool the sizzling Billups off with the short break. At least it seemed like a good idea at the time.
First possession out of the timeout, it was time for Big Shot's encore. Chris Paul lost the ball and Chauncey scooped it up. As he dribbled down court, every single person in the arena knew exactly what he was going to do and exactly where the ball was going to end up. Sure enough, he rose up well behind the arc, flicked the wrist one more time, and watched as the ball magnetically zoned in on the net, falling through without so much as a ripple of the cord. Marv did the moment justice, screaming at the top of his lungs, "He is SIZZLING!!! That is NUMBER EIGHT from DOWNTOWN!!!" Reggie Miller, a man that Chauncey had victimized and sent home many times before in the playoffs, responded with an emphatic, "DO IT TO 'EM, Mr. Big Shot!!" Even Chauncey's enemies had to just sit back and enjoy a performance this special. Chauncey jogged back the other way, wearing a grin the size of the Colorado River. He finished with 36 points and 8 assists, as his Nuggets coasted to a 29-point win.
It's been five years since Chauncey Billups was crowned the NBA Finals MVP. Since then, many fans have questioned whether he has lost a step. They've wondered if he is still able to lead a team on a title run. One game cannot offer definitive answers on this debate. But if Sunday night's showstopping spectacle is any indication, Chauncey is most definitely not done yet.
What are your impressions of the NBA's opening playoff weekend? Share your thoughts below, or drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org