"Here's a guy who saw a couple of minutes as a rookie, and now we're isolating him as the main fourth-quarter guy. This is amazing."
-Jon Barry, Detroit Pistons
In National Basketball Association, your reputation is made in the playoffs. Michael Jordan went from good to great when he dumped 63 on the Celtics in the Garden. Earvin "Magic" Johnson proved his worth when he stepped in to play center for a hurt Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shaq, Kobe, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Reggie Miller, the list goes on and on. The regular season is nice, but the playoffs are what separate the men from the boys. And the newest star in the 2003 playoffs is a skinny rookie for the Detroit Pistons from Compton, CA via Kentucky.
The only question that many people have around here is: What took so long? Why did it take until the third game of the playoffs for the Detroit Pistons, the NBA, and the rest of America outside the Commonwealth to realize what we have all known for years? How could they not have known that University of Kentucky alum, and Piston rookie, Tayshaun Prince was the real deal? Coming out of college, his resume was incredible: 2002 SEC Player of the Year, Top 10 scorer in UK history, various All-American teams, and clutch performances in the NCAA tournament. Sure, the 2001-2002 UK Wildcats, aka Team Turmoil, had some problems, but none could be traced to the hard working kid from Compton. But then, when the NBA draft rolled around, it took until pick 23 for someone to select him. Jared Jeffries of Indiana was a lottery choice, but Prince, a player with a better outside shot than Jeffries, better ball handling than Jeffries, better defensive skills than Jeffries, and who had thoroughly outplayed Jeffries in their two match-ups, was selected over 10 picks later. Despite UK Head Coach Tubby Smith insisting to all his NBA contacts that Prince would be a great NBA player, only former Piston great and current General Manager Joe Dumars got the message. "I saw an intelligent player-a guy who could bring it up, that could shoot the three, and that could post up," Dumars said. "I felt like there was no way we could pass on him. We don't have anybody else like him. We believe he's going to be an integral part of our future."
10.4 minutes and 3.3 points per game. 40 games played, 42 DNP's. Did Not Play -coach's decisions. Those were the stats of Prince coming into the playoffs. Despite the glowing report of him from Dumars, head coach Rick Carlisle, notoriously not fond of rookies, had no immediate plans for Prince to play any sort of crucial role. Then T-Mac happened. Tracy McGrady, or T-Mac as he is known in NBA circles, was completely and utterly destroying the Pistons. Although McGrady's Orlando Magic were an 8th seed, and the Pistons the East's top seed, the scoring barrage being unleashed did little except make the supposedly defensive-oriented Pistons look silly. All the goodwill built up during the regular season was about to fly out the window until that fateful moment when Carlisle, desperate for an answer, looked down the bench and decided, "What the hell, Prince, you guard him." Now, T-Mac had a problem. He was being guarded by a player as tall as he was and longer than he was. He was quicker than Prince, but the rookie's elongated wingspan allowed him to back off a little. McGrady's scoring average, and shooting percentage, plummeted faster than the U.S. economy under a Republican president. McGrady's Magic blew a 3-games-to-1 lead while Prince closed out the series scoring 15, 5, and 20 points, while guarding one of the best players in the NBA. His Game 7 performance was one of the top playoff performances of all-time for a rookie, second only to Magic Johnson in the 1980 NBA Finals. He scored 20 points while playing a multitude of positions and earned only the second game ball given since Carlisle has been coach. "It was a big time performance by a terrific young player and a true professional with unusual maturity," Carlisle gushed after the game.
The second round of the playoffs have brought even more success and proved the Magic series was no fluke. Just when many though he could not top his Game 7 showcase, Prince hit a game-tying basket in the closing seconds of Game 2 against the Philadelphia 76ers to send the game into overtime. In the extra period, the Pistons continued to run isolation plays for him and he scored 7 of his 20 points in the overtime. "Getting the experience in college, that prepared me for this situation," Prince remarked after game.
For most of the year, he was a forgotten man. Averaging 10 points and 4 rebounds off the bench, during the playoffs, however, can get a guy some pub. In the past week Prince has been on the front of espn.com, in the pages of the Detroit Free-Press and the Detroit News, discussed on the radio, and on ESPN shows such as Around the Horn, PTI, and The Sports Reporters and the subject of fan adoration. People in the Motor City sound amazed at how this skinny kid can bang inside, bring the ball up the court, and drill the three, all the time while playing incredible defense. Around here though, no one is surprised. We knew what Tayshaun Prince could do, and now the world is finding out. The series with the 76ers is tied 2-2 and if Detroit plans on making it to the Eastern Conference Finals, a lot rides on the willowy shoulders of Prince. Piston fans should not worry though, that skinny frame holds a giant heart.
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