So Flip Saunders spent 82 games molding and incorporating the bench into the game-plan for that? Flip swore things would be different this year. He swore that the Pistons would need to use the bench to have success in the playoffs. I’m not shocked that he didn’t stay true to his word. I didn’t actually believe him. It’s just disappointing to have to go through this crap yet again. As far as I’m concerned, Flip’s primary purpose of giving so many minutes to the bench in the regular season was just one giant ploy to get Lindsey Hunter ready for game one of the NBA playoffs. Hunter only played 12+ minutes in five games all season. Yet, there he was in game one against Philly as the primary backup to Billups playing 12 minutes. Don’t be misled by the box score that says Rodney Stuckey played 13 minutes. Stuckey did, in fact, play 13 minutes but don’t confuse that with a vote of confidence or an actual meaningful contribution. Stuckey took all of one shot in those 13 minutes. He averaged 19 minutes per game in the regular season and was the catalyst for the second unit all season. Jarvis Hayes averaged 16 minutes per game in the regular season. He played five minutes against Philly and took all of one shot. Amir Johnson didn’t even play. Jason Maxiell played 30 minutes but that was out of necessity rather than choice. Don’t let Max’s minutes fool you. Antonio McDyess and his sudden irrelevance meant Max needed to play for the Pistons to have any presence on the glass or in the paint. The rest of the bench combined to play 36 minutes. Bottom line: the bench was predictably shelved for game one of the playoffs.
I’ve been saying all season that this team cannot win without using the bench heavily. The Pistons’ bench is the most influential second unit in the NBA for one reason and one reason only: it actually motivates the starters to play well. Most first units in the NBA don’t need to be manipulated into playing well. The Pistons—as everyone knows by now—are a different story. They have proven time and time again that they cannot find their own motivation. They are bored of themselves. All season, the second unit has been the antidote to that problem. The bench has infused energy and excitement into the second and third quarters. They have kept the starters fresh and—most importantly—motivated for the fourth quarter. The Pistons lost to Philly in game one because Flip didn’t use the bench. The starters built a 15-point lead and didn’t have the urgency to finish it off. The bench wouldn’t have exploded for a million points or saved the Pistons at the end of the game. The bench merely would’ve kept the starters from losing total interest in the game in the fourth quarter which clearly happened. When Philly punched Detroit in the mouth in the 4th quarter, the starters responded with as much fury and effectiveness as a toothless, dead, squirrel. They never respected Philly enough to actually think they might lose. The longer the starters are out on the floor, the more disinterested they become. They had hammered Philly all game and didn’t feel threatened even when the game got close. I believe they would’ve been hungrier and sharper had the bench gotten its fair share of minutes throughout the game. The starters are head cases. They need to be treated as such. They need to be tricked into playing well.
I was hoping that Flip would understand the importance that this particular bench has to this particular team. For most teams, the bench is a device to give starters rest. For the Pistons, the bench is a device to keep the starters focused. The various mix-and-match lineups the Pistons played throughout the season gave the starters an obvious boost of excitement. The starters seemed to enjoy playing with the younger, more energetic bench. When Joe D refused to take note of the huge, neon signs pointing to irrevocable complacency the last two seasons and came back with the same stale team in 2007-08, he had to know that this team needed a catalyst. The most ridiculous thing about this whole deal is that the Pistons have the perfect bench to be that catalyst. The starters responded to the bench’s contributions all season. The starters looked to have more fun and played some of the best per-minute basketball of their careers. Flip had constructed the perfect balance between the starters and bench. It was all set up perfectly for the playoffs.
I don’t want to eliminate the possibility that there was some actual thought behind muting the bench in game one. There is one reasonable explanation for what transpired against Philly. The Sixers are a “run ’n gun” team. They like to get out in transition and push the ball up court. The Pistons’ bench just so happens to be a “run ‘n gun” bench. So, it is possible that Flip feared that Stuckey and Co. would get tricked into playing Philly’s style and blow it. I don’t agree with that reasoning. Stuckey, Amir, Hayes, and Max have been running all season and they are every bit as good as Willie Green, Louis Williams, and Reggie Evans. They are more than capable of holding their own against a 40-42 basketball team. If Flip can’t trust his bench against those guys, then they shouldn’t even be on the roster. However, at least that sort of reasoning would be above caveman-level thinking. I fear that the actual explanation doesn’t have anywhere near that sort of insight. If I had to guess, the reason Flip benched the bench in game one was because he didn’t think the bench could handle playoff-basketball. If Flip hasn’t realize by now that the starters have irreparable motivation issues, then this team is in serious trouble and Flip needs to be canned. More of the same doesn’t work when “the same” sucks. If Flip doesn’t start dishing out major minutes to the bench in game two and beyond, he is much worse than I ever thought possible. As much blame as there is for Flip, Joe D deserves some as well. If this season hasn’t proved that he needs to make a major move, then I’m not sure he is a slick as most—including myself—think he is. The Pistons starting five is the most boring collection of basketball players that I have ever seen. It hurts to watch them attempt to have fun playing with each other.
The Pistons can and will beat Philly with their tired lackadaisical attitude. They can and will beat Orlando in the second round with the same indifferent disposition. However, instead of winning in four games and five games respectively like they should, they’ll be pushed to the brink in both series. Boston will destroy Atlanta and Cleveland and they’ll be rested and waiting to do the same to the Pistons. The only way the starters are going to be rested enough and motivated enough to have a chance against Boston is to get the bench involved now. Flip should make it a point to not play his starters more than 32 minutes each in game two. He is coaching as if he has something to lose. This team hasn’t won anything since 2004. This team is stale and ineffective. It’s time for Flip to stop acting as if he’s got the ’86 Celtics in his lineup. The Pistons don’t have the best starting lineup in the NBA. That hasn’t been the case since 2004. Flip’s only chance is to go with what worked in the regular season. It’s bench or bust, baby.