There’s no anniversary coming up, it’s not Richard Hamilton’s birthday, and it’s not even a hashtag-ready flashback theme day.
But the truth of the matter is, I get a little bit of cabin fever when the Pistons don’t play for two nights. So I try to fill that void… with more Pistons. That’s how I ended up back in 2004 again. By chance, I happened to indulge in a replay of Game 6 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals.
In a series best remembered for Tayshaun Prince’s Game 2 theatrics when he chased down and swatted Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller’s potential game-tying layup attempt, Game 6 tends to remain largely overlooked. It’s become too easy to watch Prince’s play in hindsight then deduce in summary, “And that’s how we made it to the NBA Finals.”
Despite using Prince’s block to avoid the death sentence that would have been falling behind 2-0 to a 61-win Pacers team, the Pistons still almost lost this series.
Pistons head coach Larry Brown had his players treat Game 6 at The Palace as if it were do-or-die. And sure, that’s what all coaches say. But rest assured, no one wanted to go back to Indianapolis for Game 7. Having just scratched and clawed their way to a seven-game victory over the 2003 finalist New Jersey Nets, there was no guarantee the Pistons would have had anything left in the tank if another series went the distance.
Early on in Game 6, it seemed entirely possible that the Pistons were already cooked. With 10:09 left in the second quarter, Indiana had them doubled up, leading 25-12.
But as sports movie cliches go, the Pistons didn’t quit, riding Richard Hamilton, aka the only Piston to shoot better than 40 percent in the series, to battle back and knot the score at 59 with under four minutes remaining. And yes, for the 23-and-under crowd, that’s not a typo. Through 44 minutes of action, there was a distinct possibility that the first team to hit 60 was going to walk away victorious.
And then everything changed.
After interpreting Richard Hamilton’s brief attempt to establish post position as a malicious act (and it could have been), Pacers forward Ron Artest let instinct take over. Despite a futile attempt at self control, Artest delivered a half-speed forearm to Hamilton’s mask-protected face, a face that’d already been broken twice before earlier in the season.
The subsequent flagrant foul swung the momentum of the series once and for all. Hamilton’s two free throws, combined with Rasheed Wallace’s tip-dunk on Detroit’s free possession pushed the Pistons lead to four, which may have well been 30 in a game where both teams combined to shoot under 35 percent from the field.
Hamilton, for his part, took Artest’s assault personally, committing a nearly just as costly taunting technical foul following Wallace’s dunk (though Reggie Miller would uncharacteristically miss the subsequent free throw). Hamilton soon re-focused, burning Artest for a baseline jumper two minutes later, bellowing an R-rated variation of “This is my house!” while pointing to The Palace floor in celebration.
Less than 80 seconds later, the Pistons were Eastern Conference Champions for the first time since 1990. It wouldn’t be the last time Pacers fans were left wondering what might have been were it not for an ill-timed decision on the part of Ron Artest.