It took the subtraction of Allen Iverson to mend the Pistons, and while there is a chance his removal came a bit too late, Detroit needs to win just one more game to seal a playoff berth. The Pistons are now tied for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with the Chicago Bulls, a lucky spot that means avoiding a first-round clash with LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers.
Would Detroit be in this position if Iverson's back hadn't locked up, if he decided to put his ego aside and be a good soldier off the bench? The Pistons, weary of the season-long drama Iverson created, haven't any desire to engage in what-ifs. There are other, more pressing matters to solve, such as how the Madison Square Garden nets magically grew to the size of giant silos Wednesday night, and how the New York Knicks defense performed an even greater trick and made itself disappear.
"The net did look pretty big," said Pistons forward Antonio McDyess, after his 13 points and 16 rebounds helped Detroit demolish the Knicks, 113-86. "We're just really clicking now, just in time."
It was a wire-to-wire blow-out, the kind you see when one team can't wait for the season to be over while the other team has finally got a sniff of how good life can be. The Pistons led by 10 points before the Garden crowd settled into its seats, went ahead 21-6 on a sweet up-and-under from Rasheed Wallace, laughed through another 9-0 run in which every 3-pointer slinked through the net and never allowed the Knicks to find a groove as they fell behind by as many as 31.
Wallace sounded like a loon the other day, when he declared the Pistons hadn't just found their swagger, they were a fair shot to win the NBA title. Really? The team with worrisome chemistry issues? The team that fell apart when Iverson and Richard Hamilton were asked to play basically the same position? The team that stuttered through an erratic season, that ranks 30th in scoring, that barely straddles a .500 record?
"Yeah, but that's not who we are today," Wallace was saying before he went out and scored 14 points and pulled down 12 boards and showed why he's a nightmare matchup on both ends of the court.
The Pistons speak about Iverson in roundabout circles, which is exactly how they played against the Knicks, Detroit's ball movement floating like figure eights through a defense that could not have been more lackadaisical. The Pistons won't knock the guy, not publicly anyway, but it's clear they aren't sending Iverson we-miss-you texts.
He was never a good fit, from the day Detroit president Joe Dumars made the ruinous trade with Denver for Iverson, swapping him for guard Chauncey Billups, McDyess and Cheikh Samb just as the season began. The Pistons have built an empire on the concept of team but Iverson, to the shock of nobody but Dumars, never embraced it. The back problems that sidelined Iverson for 16 games merely plastered over how much of a misfit he was on a club that needs to share the ball if it wants to succeed.
Dumars' statement last Friday announcing Iverson would miss the remaining regular season and the playoffs didn't exactly tell the entire story. "After talking with Allen and our medical staff, we feel that resting Allen for the remainder of the season is the best course of action at this time," Dumars said. "While he has played in our last three games, he is still feeling some discomfort and getting him physically ready to compete at the level he is accustomed to playing this late in the season does not seem possible at this point."
Dumars failed to address Iverson's disdain at being a role player. So uniquely talented, so physically gifted, Iverson never was the best teammate and, at 33, he refuses to wrap his head around the idea he's not the same player who can knock back 30 points a night.
He came to the Motor City talking the talk about wanting to win a championship, and left walking the walk that led him out of Philadelphia, where he once was the favored son -- muttering about his playing time, frustrated he was being disrespected. Sound familiar?
"How many minutes did I play? It seemed way, way, way less than that. Eighteen minutes?" Iverson said in a self-centered rant earlier this month following his return to the court in a reduced role. "Come on, man. I can play 18 minutes with my eyes closed and with a 100-pound truck on my back. It's a bad feeling, man. I'm wondering what they rushed me back for? For that?
"It's a bad time for me, mentally."
Dumars promptly went to coach Michael Curry, asked him if the rift could be healed, if Iverson ever would be content with the ball/universe not revolving around him. A short while later, Dumars drew down the curtain. The Pistons will eat Iverson's $21.9 million salary and get on with making the playoffs and rebuilding the future.
Curry still wonders if a training camp with Iverson might have helped the team bond. Hamilton might have had more time to get the feel of A.I., to understand what it takes to feed a guy who slapped his heart to his sleeve in every game. Iverson was a four-time scoring champ, with more than 23,000 points to his name: that's what the Pistons would have learned in training camp.
Hamilton curled effortlessly around picks to finish with 22 points against the Knicks, Tayshaun Prince scored 15 and Rodney Stuckey added 14 for the Pistons, who saw six players reach double digits and zero players crying about not getting enough touches. This is exactly what McDyess envisioned when he turned back more money so he could escape Denver a third time and return to Detroit, where he had some unfinished business to attend. McDyess has more miles on him than a '69 Chevy, and sometimes his body feels just as battered, but he believes in the healing power of team, of unselfish ball.
McDyess first joined the Pistons following their 2004 title run. He helped them to the finals the next year, and the conference finals the following three, and he truly thinks this version is peaking just at the right time.
"I'm not predicting anything," McDyess said. "But we're capable of doing some great things if we keep playing like this."
And Iverson? He's doing whatever it is he does to heal his back (the Pistons never were quite sure what that was during the month he wasn't with the team), and he continues to tell people he can be a star, not a role player, on whatever club signs him as a free agent over the summer.
Too bad injury and ego prevented him from sticking around Detroit, because he could be missing a beautiful thing.