The 2004 Detroit Pistons are sacred around these parts.
Their underdog roster, full of former castoffs led by Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace, revitalized each others’ careers and the Pistons’ franchise, leading them to one of the most surprising upsets in NBA Finals history over the Los Angeles Lakers.
One of the rugged bench players on that roster was Saginaw native Darvin Ham, now in his debut season as the Lakers’ head coach.
[ Pistons were flat-out better than Lakers in 2004 Finals, and proved it right away ]
And he shouted out those beloved “Goin’ to Work” Pistons on Monday night, after LA’s Game 4 win over the defending champion Warriors gave it a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Lakers’ defense clamped down on Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the fourth quarter, limiting them to 17 points and allowing the Lakers to overcome a double-digit second-half deficit. Specifically, Anthony Davis made it just tough enough on Curry on back-to-back shot attempts with the Lakers leading by one and under 40 seconds to play, to hold on for the 104-101 victory.
So, how did Davis and the Lakers, who own the league’s best defensive rating in the playoffs, do it? Here’s what Ham said in his postgame news conference, as reported by The Athletic.
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“I just think the relentlessness, man, brings a smile to my face, makes me feel fuzzy and warm. Just the relentlessness, man. I happened to be a part, as a player, of one of the all-time greatest defenses that the NBA has ever seen in the ’03-04 Pistons, holding people to under 70 points for an entire game.
“Just being around Ben, ‘Sheed (Wallace), Chauncey, Rip (Hamilton), Tayshaun (Prince), Mike James, Lindsey Hunter, all these guys. Elden Campbell, Corliss (Williamson), Mehmet (Okur) — all those guys were totally focused on that end of the floor. It really wasn’t pretty most nights, but we figured out a way. And a lot of it was due to our getting stops, and it comes from (his assistant coaching days in) Atlanta, Milwaukee, the type of system we had under coach Bud (Mike Budenholzer), was the same type of deal. So that’s one of the first things I wanted to check the box off of (as Lakers coach) — competitiveness, us being together, and us being accountable. And it all starts on the defensive (end). That gives you a chance each and every night.”
The quote resonates and holds true in contrast to the rule changes and scoring boom of today’s league. It wasn’t pretty for the Pistons of two decades ago, but “we figured out a way” sums it up.
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The 2003-04 Pistons allowed 83.5 points per game in the regular season, fewest in the NBA, and were second in defensive rating (93.9). Ben Wallace was the anchor, named first-team All-Defense and runner-up as Defensive Player of the Year (Indiana’s Ron Artest won it).
They only scored 87.1 points per game in their 23 playoff games, but allowed just 80.7.
The current iteration of the Pistons should take note of the final sentence from Ham’s response, after finishing 27th in defensive rating this season en route to an NBA-worst 17-65 record.
The Pistons are desperate for a defensive identity and that is a big qualification for what general manager Troy Weaver is looking for in the franchise’s next head coach.
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“I know what this team needs is simple — discipline, development and defense,” he said immediately after the season. “That’s going to be the call for the next coach.”
It’s also the team’s biggest need for the roster this offseason, which Weaver acknowledged that same day.
“A wing defender that can shoot it, I would say that’s maybe the one tool we don’t have.”
The Pistons will be armed with as much as $30 million in cap space, and will have a top-five pick in June’s NBA draft.
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