The agony is over.
The Pistons returned to Indianapolis tonight, 120 days after they opened this miserable season with a loss to the Pacers. Detroit took another loss tonight, but unlike Dec. 26, it wasn’t a licking.
It wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t inspiring. And it sure wasn’t meaningful. But the Pistons hung with the Pacers until the game’s final minute, when Indiana pulled away for a 103-97 victory.
Every year, a team surpasses all expectations. Its players improved during the offseason more than expected, or its coach ingrains a new plan quicker than expected, or something else just goes right that nobody saw coming.
One hundred and twenty days ago, I thought that might be the Pistons. Of course, I didn’t actually think it would be the Pistons. They had just essentially returned a team that went 30-52. But I thought it might be.
The Pacers crushed that hope in just a couple hours, and they, in fact, became the team that surpasses all expectations. One hundred and twenty days later, the Pacers are resting their top players as they’ve already clinched homecourt advantage in the first-round of the playoffs.
The Pistons, on the other hand, fell to 24-41 while using all their top players save Ben Wallace. The way they lost to Indiana in the opener, it was no surprise they started 4-20. Since, they’ve made moderate gains to a foundation that was invisible Dec. 26, and many of those improvements were on display tonight:
- Greg Monroe (18 points and 12 rebounds tonight) became one of the league’s most improved players.
- Brandon Knight (16 points, four assists and four rebounds) showed flashes of being a dynamic lead guard.
- Jason Maxiell (10 points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks) rekindled his energy.
- Vernon Macklin (six points and six rebounds in 14 minutes) developed into a reasonable NBA big man.
- Austin Daye (11 points) made a few shots.
Pessimistically, those aren’t the biggest marks of progress – especially when the production of Rodney Stuckey (zero points, two assists in 20 minutes) has regressed lately. But in the context of 120 days ago, they’re remarkable.
The Pistons’ big losses and small steps of 2011-12 will soon begin to fade from memory, and tonight was the last hurdle for the fans who’ve hung on for this entire ride. As Detroit transitions from its penultimate game into its season finale against the 76ers on Thursday, attention will turn to Ben Wallace and his remarkable career. With one game left, this season’s basketball is over. All that’s left is to celebrate Wallace.
Soon after that, we’ll look back on the basketball of this season and try to convince ourselves the 2012-13 Pistons could be the team that surpasses all expectations.
Most Valuable Player
Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger and George Hill sat out for the Pacers. Paul George most certainly did not. The active wing had 27 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Both teams offensively rebounded very well, but the Pacers got the biggest when Tyler Hansbrough corralled a miss, got fouled and made both free throws – giving Indiana a three-point lead with 26 seconds left.
Greg Monroe (18 points and 12 rebounds) helped keep the Pistons in the game, but his five turnovers and making just 1-of-4 late free throws ultimately sunk Detroit.