Friday, November 20, 2009
The Detroit Pistons have not been playing their best ball of late. Their big men are struggling to contribute offensively, the guards are forcing the action a little too much, and Jonas Jerebko gets more uncomfortable offensively with each passing moment. It has led to three straight losses, albeit to a trio of playoff teams in the West. Looking ahead to Saturday night, the Pistons travel to Salt Lake City to take on the Jazz, and the point is this. The Pistons could trot out five Hall-of-Famers for that game. They could bring back Dave Bing and Bob Lanier in their primes. They could lure Kelly Tripucka back to the Pistons' announcing booth for one more night. Hell, they could be given a 25-point lead at the beginning of the game, be allowed to play the whole 48 minutes on a never ending power play, and be given permission by the NBA to have both Abdenour brothers on the sideline to serve as dual head trainers. None of it would matter. Because as any knowledgeable Detroit basketball fan knows, the Pistons never win in Utah.
A little history here to see exactly how devastating the Curse of Utah has been. It hasn't always been like this for the Pistons and Jazz. After all, when the Jazz played in New Orleans and were led by Pistol Pete Maravich and a generous entrée-sized portion of rice pilaf, the Pistons had tremendous success. They would go 6-4 in the Big Easy during the five short years the Jazz took residence there. Then everything changed. The annual Mardi Gras celebration forced the Jazz on a month-long road trip in the midst of a playoff run, and the franchise decided that was the last straw. They packed their bags and headed for the friendly skies of Salt Lake City, but as the Pistons would discover in the years to come, "friendly" would be the last word to describe a trip to this godforsaken city. "Hell" would be more like it.
The first Pistons-Jazz clash in the new Utah digs took place in the 1980 season. It was too much Adrian Dantley, and not enough Kent Benson and Phil Hubbard, and the Jazz romped by 14. This became a familiar sight. The three years to follow also brought L's to the Pistons ledger on their annual Utah trip. The '84 season also saw a Jazz home triumph, only this time they were especially hostile hosts, exploding for 143 points and winning by 18. Again, the next three years all told the same story: L, L, L. The Pistons had traveled to Utah eight times, and come up short every single time. Finally, in 1988, the 'Stones broke through. They squeaked out a 3-point win, and then somehow managed to make it back-to-back wins the next year with a 4-point thriller in double overtime. Perhaps the pendulum was finally swinging back in favor of the boys from Motown on their yearly jaunt to Jazz Country. Think again.
The Pistons played twice more in the Salt Palace (one of the more underrated arena names from the 'Pre Corporate Naming Rights' era), getting handled both times. The Pistons must have exhaled a bit, knowing the Jazz were moving from that wretched building where they had managed just two wins against ten losses. Off to the Delta Center, the new state of the art facility that would now hold close to 20,000 screaming Mormons intent on making it as difficult as ever to get a W in their multi-wived territory. First trip to the new digs...two point loss in a nail-biter. Ron Rothstein came aboard in '93...Bam! 24-point shellacking courtesy of the Mailman. It was Don Chaney to the rescue in '94 and '95, but sadly his dynamic duo of Rafael Addison and Oliver Miller wasn't enough...they lost both contests by a combined 45 points. Doug Collins took over right where his predecessors left off, making three Utah treks to Utah and coming home empty on each occasion. Thankfully, the lockout forced the league to adopt a reduced 50-game schedule in 1999, and the NBA had some rachmanos for the Pistons, sparing them their annual plank walk in Utah.
This decade of Pistons-Jazz basketball got off to a most inauspicious start. Termed the "Bryon Russell Conspiracy" in these parts, this was the game where the Jazz had a clear shot-clock violation in the final seconds that was inexplicably ignored by all three referees, denying the Pistons a final shot to win the game. (I went into greater detail on this game in an earlier blog...2nd item down.) Somehow, the Stones got up off the mat and took revenge by winning back-to-back Utah affairs in the 2002 and '03 seasons. No matter how much Rick Carlisle frustrated me during his two years as Pistons head coach (and yes, I still wake up in a cold sweat 2-3 times a week over his mismanaging of Corliss Williamson's minutes in 2002), I must give the man his props for going 2-0 in the Utah Dungeon. Granted, in his first win, Karl Malone and John Stockton were a combined 77 years old...and in the second win, Malone missed the game entirely and was replaced in the starting lineup by John Amaechi, but it remains a highly impressive accomplishment by Carlisle, nonetheless. The last six years have been status quo in the "rivalry." Loss after loss after loss after loss. To see a perfect display of the Jazz home dominance, go back to the Pistons' championship year of 2004. They rode into Ostertag's World carrying a 4-game winning streak. Forty-eight minutes later, that streak was up in smoke. Chauncey and the boys then reeled off eight more victories. So that's 12 wins in 13 ballgames for the eventual champs, and the only loss during their hottest period of the season came at Utah. Coincidence?? I think not.
Sometimes I wonder...what makes traveling to Utah and getting a win such an impossible feat for our Detroit Pistons? There have been other dominant teams out West over the years, but none of them strike fear into the hearts of Pistons fans quite like a trip to Utah. For so many years, you knew a game with the Jazz meant endless Stockton-to-Malone pick-and-rolls, where your only hope as a defense was that the ball might eventually be swung around to some mook like Shandon Anderson or Scott Padgett. There's Jerry Sloan, who's been guiding that ship ever since they made the switch from peach baskets. There's the bloodthirsty Utah crowd, which seems to be louder and more intimidating than any other in the league. NBA talking heads would constantly clamor about the noise at Arco in Sac-Town, or the near-impossibility of scoring a victory in Spurs Land; but it was always those hooligans in Utah that made you fear for your life, even while sitting at home watching on TV from 1,700 miles away. And don't think you're getting a fair whistle in Utah, either. The refs are about as impartial as Brendan Fraser's fellow students at the end of School Ties. It is fairly common that a team will outplay the Jazz in their gym, but still fall short due to the alarming disparity at the free throw line.
Let's remember here...I'm about as much of a "homer" Pistons fan as there is in the world. I was the guy that had psychotic hallucinations about the Pistons actually coming back against Cleveland last year after two demoralizing blowouts to open the series, even going so far as to use a Hugh Grant romantic comedy as a source of inspiration. All that being said, I will now also tell you that the Pistons have absolutely zero chance of winning in Utah on Saturday night. 100% Loss...0% Win. I hate to be Mr. Doom and Gloom, but the numbers in this case are simply impossible to ignore. Consider these numbers.
-The Pistons have played in the Jazz' current home (now EnergySolutions Arena...maybe the worst creation of the "Corporate Naming Rights" era) 17 times...they've won twice.
-They have played the Jazz 19 times this decade, home or away...again, they've won twice.
-They have lost 8 in a row overall in the series, including a 17-point drubbing in Salt Lake last year.
-And now for the coup de grâce...the Pistons are a ghastly 18-41 all-time against the Jazz of Utah, by far their worst winning percentage (.305) against any opponent in franchise history. Second would be the Celtics...third would be the Lakers. You get the idea.
There aren't many times during an NBA season when you can say with complete and absolute certainty that one team has literally no chance of winning a particular game. Well, this is the rare exception. The Jazz are by no means steamrolling over the NBA in the season's opening weeks. They will enter Saturday night with a pedestrian 6-6 mark. Mehmet Okur is out with an injury and there's something called a "Wes Matthews" starting at shooting guard. On paper, they look very beatable. Against the Pistons, however, they are indestructible. So don't bother tuning in Saturday night or checking out the box score Sunday morning. This game's outcome was decided 30 years ago when that godforsaken Mardi Gras festival forced the Jazz out of New Orleans and into Utah, where they have now taken up permanent residence in the personal nightmares of every Pistons fan from Saginaw to Saugatuck. Utah has always been a state well known for their commitment to religion. But Saturday night, the big fella upstairs will be firmly on the side of the Pistons. They need all the help they can get...
Got a personal Pistons-Jazz memory?? Let your feelings out here, or shoot me an E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org