Almost Upset: Raptors-Pistons 2002
It’s been fun, but Almost Upset is winding down.
2002 was the final season where the NBA employed the best-of-five first round series. The perfect setup for dramatic upsets if the feeling was right or mercifully quick sweeps if an opponent was outmatched.
For its swan song, the best-of-five first round went out in style! Except the style was pretty ugly. Get ready for low low scores and the itinerant feelings of dread as the Toronto Raptors almost upset the Detroit Pistons!
BAD BOYS AGAIN
Hey, we’ve seen the Pistons before in these parts, but it was awhile ago. Those Pistons of the Bad Boys era from 1987 to 1991 reached the Eastern Conference Finals every year and of course peaked with back-to-back titles. This halcyon age began crumbling in 1992 when the 48-win Pistons lost to the 51-win New York Knicks in the first round. In 1993, the Pistons slumped to 40 wins and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1983.
Then came the collapse.
The Pistons finished the 1994 season on a 13-game losing streak. Adding injury to insult, Isiah Thomas tore his Achilles on April 19, the final home game of the season, forcing his retirement. Other Bad Boys like Dennis Rodman, John Salley, and Vinnie Johnson were gone. Bill Laimbeer lumbered to only 11 games that year as he retired too.
Then came the hope.
Only Joe Dumars would continue on into the next generation of Detroit basketball. And since the Pistons won only 20 games in 1994, they rocketed up the draft lottery standings and took Grant Hill with the third overall pick. The Pistons already had a standout young player in Allan Houston plus other tools in the box for success like point guard Lindsey Hunter and forward Terry Mills.
These Pistons would quickly rebounded to 46 wins by 1996 as they further added rookie Theo Ratliff and veteran Otis Thorpe. In ‘97 Detroit surged further to 54 wins. However, both those seasons Detroit lost in the first round. The club had a setback in 1998 winning just 37 games and they questionably traded Ratliff and Aaron McKie to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jerry Stackhouse after having already lost Houston to the Knicks in free agency. This isn’t to besmirch Stack, but Philly clearly won that trade.
Nonetheless Detroit rebounded in 1999 with 29 wins (equivalent to 48 in a full season), but once more lost in the first round. The same story essentially unfolded in 2000: 42 wins and a first round loss.
And that’s when Detroit entered yet another rebuild.
The recently retired Joe Dumars took over as general manager and made some deft moves. Unfortunately, Hill left in free agency to the Orlando Magic, but this time around the Pistons were able to conduct a sign-and-trade. In return for Hill, Detroit got plucky point guard Chucky Atkins and undersized center…. B-B-B-BEN WALLACE!!!
With Stackhouse still hanging around as the primary scoring threat (an absurd 29.8 PPG in the 2001 season), Detroit needed a little more scoring punch so they traded the defensive mastermind Jerome Williams to the Toronto Raptors for Corliss Williamson in perhaps the greatest trade of nicknames ever.
A junkyard dog for some big nasty.
The Pistons finished the 2001 season with just 32 wins, but the key to future was already there. Detroit ranked only 25th in offensive rating, but eighth in defensive rating.
For the 2002 season, the Pistons hired Rick Carlisle as coach and the defense remained stingy (ranked eighth once again), while the offense perked up to 12th in the league. Dumars made another banger of a trade with Phoenix swapping Jud Buechler and John Wallace for Clifford Robinson (RIP). Then he sent Mateen Cleaves off to Sacramento for shooting guard Jon Barry and a 2003 1st round pick.
Robinson was far into his career as was Barry, but both guys were savvy and intelligent. It’s no wonder Detroit’s offense improved with them on board.
So with Stackhouse, Wallace, Williamson, Robinson, Barry, Atkins, and Michael Curry as the club’s main force, Detroit won 50 games and the Central Division crown completing a stupendously quick rebuild from losing Hill.
Wallace was voted the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Soon enough the Pistons would be legitimate title contenders for the rest of the decade, but first they had to win a playoff series something they hadn’t done since 1991.
Their opponent wouldn’t make that easy.
ON THE VERGE OF EXTINCTION
As Detroit was on the verge of returning to glory, the Toronto Raptors were already sliding back into misery after an incredibly brief moment of glory.
Entering the league as an expansion club in 1995-96, the Raptors had a couple great early draft picks (Damon Stoudamire and Marcus Camby). The Raptors were already at 30 wins for their second season—a pretty good mark!—but they fell back big time for the 1998 season. They finished with just 16 wins including an awful 2-22 start to that campaign.
Seeing that things were obviously going sideways, Toronto traded the 1996 Rookie of the Year Stoudamire to Portland for a bevvy of players and picks. The gem of their return turned out to be Alvin Williams. Hilariously, the Raptors acquired Kenny Anderson from Portland and immediately shipped him off to Boston for Chauncey Billups, who obviously would have been a great point guard for the future. However, Toronto deemed Williams the better bet and would trade Billups to Denver in the 1999 lockout season. At least they got a draft pick in that trade that turned out to be Morris Peterson.
Oh, and another important trade? Sending Camby to New York for Charles Oakley in the summer of 1998. The frontcourt was further buttressed when they traded Jonathan Bender to Indiana for Antonio Davis.
So Toronto kinda whiffed at point guard, despite having the good Alvin Williams, and also built a sturdy frontcourt… and it feels like I’m missing something…
Draft night 1998! They traded the right to Antawn Jamison for the rights to Vince Carter. Now, Jamison had a great career, but Carter was something else. And made Toronto exciting. And also good.
After a 23-27 record in 1999 (equivalent to 38 wins), the Raptors surged to 45 wins in 2000. They were swept by the Knicks, but it was a competitive display and proud showing for their first playoff series.
In 2001, the Raptors didn’t improve much (47 wins), but Lenny Wilkens replaced Butch Carter as coach and the team was more assured as they rose from 15th and 17th in offensive and defensive rating, respectively, in 2000 to 8th and 14th, respectively, in 2001.
As the fifth seed behind 48-win New York, the Raptors pulled off a mild upset when they bested the Knicks in five games in the first round. In the semi-finals, Carter engaged in his epic back-and-forth scoring duel with Allen Iverson. The 76ers famously prevailed in seven games as Carter missed a shot at the buzzer in Game 7 that could have won Toronto the series.
Well, the hope of 2001 faded in 2002. Carter struggled with a left quadriceps strain that eventually impacted his knee and ruined his season. In March, the struggle got real enough that surgery was done and knocked him out for 6-to-8 weeks, basically the rest of the season. Toronto would be lucky to have him back for the playoffs… if they made the playoffs… and advanced far enough.
The team stood at 30-38 around the time of Carter’s surgery and needed a 12-2 surge down the stretch to sneak into the playoffs, just a game ahead of the 41-win Milwaukee Bucks.
So although just a year removed from being one game away from the Eastern Conference Finals, this Toronto team was much different. Oakley was gone and Carter hurt. Toronto’s main rotation would be Davis, Peterson, Alvin Williams, Jerome Williams, Keon Clark, Chris Childs, and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention… this was Hakeem’s final season. What a terrible way to go out.
It’s time for a pitiful Almost Upset between the #2 seed Pistons and #7 seed Raptors.
Back in 2002, you could score 85 points and still get a convincing blowout victory.
And if you think the final score is bad, wait until you learn that Toronto only scored nine points in the 1st quarter and just 11 points in the 3rd quarter. And since Detroit only scored 16 points of their own in the 1st quarter, the teams combined for the lowest point total in a playoff 1st quarter in NBA history.
What a time to be alive.
Ben Wallace decimated the Raptors with 19 points(!), 20 rebounds, three blocks, and three steals. Big Ben received the NBA’s DPOY award prior to the game, but decided to show everyone he was multi-faceted as he made 8-11 FGs and 3-4 FTs. Stackhouse struggled shooting just 5-13 from the field, but made all 10 of his FTs en route to 20 points.
Off Detroit’s bench, Barry and Williamson combined for 23 points on 10-21 shooting. In this series, that counts for hyper-efficiency.
Don’t believe me?
Toronto shot 29.9% from the field. 23-77 FGs. Even from the free throw line they were just 15-24 (.625).
The only Raptor who you could convincingly say had a good game was Olajuwon. The Dream scored 10 points off the bench and did so on a sizzling 4-7 FGs. He also added four rebounds and three steals in his 22 minutes of play. Horrible game for Toronto.
Mercifully, this score would reflect the series more accurately from here on out.
The Raptors actually shot pretty damn good: 47.5%. Only Alvin Williams had a bad night going 4-15. Anyhoo, Toronto’s bright spots were Antonio Davis (21 points, 14 rebounds) and Chris Childs (22 points, 14 assists, 4-5 three-pointers).
In a harrowing 4th quarter, Davis and Olajuwon combined for 16 points and eight rebounds on 8-13 FGs.
Despite Toronto’s much-improved showing, Detroit held on for the win thanks to Jerry Stackhouse, uncharacteristically, making three three-pointers down the stretch of the 4th quarter.
Barry and Williamson were again dynamite off the bench with 23 points on 8-16 FGs. Wallace was more of his normal self having just seven points, but corralling 15 boards to go with three blocks and three steals.
Stack’s three-point barrage aside, Detroit’s saving grace was the free throw line. Stackhouse again paraded to the stripe making 11 of his 12 attempts. As a team, the Pistons made 27 of their 33 FTs.
Down 0-2 with no Carter in sight, it would have been easy for Toronto to fold and go fishing. But Wilkens’ club held strong when the series shifted to Canada.
Antonio Davis put on a damn show in this one right off the bat.
The big man had 12 points on 6-7 shooting in the first. Alvin Williams wasn’t far behind with eight points on 4-5 shooting. The only thing that saved Detroit from early oblivion was Atkins notching 13 points in the opening quarter.
Nonetheless, the Pistons were down 26-17 after one quarter.
The game never got totally out of hand, but Detroit never could get too close either. Exemplifying this point, Toronto at one point ballooned the lead up to 20 points, but Detroit also sliced down to as little as six. For the most part, though, Motown was kept at a safe distance.
The Jurassic wonders finished shooting 49.3% FG and 95% FT for the game as Davis ultimately collected 30 points on 14-19 FGs in probably the best playoff scoring effort of his career even with Big Ben and Uncle Cliffy guarding him for long stretches.
As for the Pistons’ scoring ace, Stackhouse was miserable. And don’t let those Canadians fool you. They’re a mean mean people. From the Lansing State Journal after the game:
Stackhouse missed his first seven shots, was scoreless in the first half and finished with 11 points on 2-for-10 shooting. In addition, he was taunted by a sellout crowd that chanted his name as he struggled.
After a convincing Game 3 win, this contest was indeed a little more contested for Toronto. The Pistons only made 38% of their shots while Toronto sank to 43% as the early 2000s muck showed up.
Midway through the 4th quarter Detroit trailed 74-65, but proceeded to tighten affairs significantly. Barry nailed two three-pointers, both assisted by Uncle Cliffy, to cut the margin down to 76-71.
Barry was then able to convert a lay up and Stackhouse got a 21-foot jumper (assisted by Barry) to slice Toronto’s lead down to 80-77 with 2:16 left in the game.
However, the Raptors were unmoved and brushed back the Pistons courtesy of Alvin Williams. He made four free throws in the final minute and also assisted a Davis jumper to push Toronto’s lead back up to 86-78. Your typical game of free throw hacking and timeouts finished things out as Toronto held on for the 89-83 victory.
Once again, Stackhouse was essentially M.I.A. scoring 15 points, but on 6-18 FGs. Wallace was horrendous going 0-6 from the field.
Atkins (20 points, 7-15 FGs) seemed annoyed by the underperforming nature of his teammates. “I don’t think we fully understand what they are doing to us defensively,” Atkins told the Associated Press. “Everybody needs to step up.”
Meanwhile, referencing their 0-2 series hole and perhaps remembering they had at one point lost 13 straight games that season, Antonio Davis was a proud man addressing his brothers in basketball arms.
“We had every opportunity in the world to fold, to quit. We didn’t. We continued to support one another and lift each other up, and that’s the great thing about playing a team sport—you can always lean on somebody.” Davis continued, “This is a testament to how beautiful things can be when you don’t let losing cause dissension among your troops.”
Cue the inspirational music.
Toronto held strong, but in the end, not having Carter was too much to overcome. But they went down swinging and certainly could have won this sludge match. And it was the benches that performed well as the starters mostly looked beleaguered and worn out.
Detroit got the win cuz they had more juice to squeeze out of their bench bunch. Again, this is where missing Carter hurt. If Vince was around as a starter that would have obviously strengthened Toronto’s bench by shifting a starter to the pine.
Anyways, the main reason Toronto held its own was because the ancient Dell Curry, in his final NBA game, scored 17 points on 6-10 FGs including connecting on all three of his downtown attempts. 14 of those points came in the 4th quarter. Now that’s going out in style. The other Raptor relic, Olajuwon, scored eight points and had four rebounds in 15 minutes. It too was his final NBA game.
The Pistons’ bench meanwhile was spearheaded by an absolutely splendid performance from Big Nasty. Corliss Williamson scored 23 points on 10-15 FGs in 28 minutes. Riding shotgun as usual was Barry who supplied 12 points and three assists.
Detroit was fortunate to have the Williamson-Barry combo because the starters were terrible offensively. Stackhouse again was atrocious shooting just 1-10 from the field and finished with just five points (although he did furnish seven assists). Atkins, who generally played well in the series, shot 6-17.
Wallace gave his usual defensive effort of 17 rebounds and three steals to cover for his pedestrian offense. But even by his lowered standards it was a bad night: 1-4 FGs, 4-10 FTs. Lastly, Clifford Robinson had a mediocre shooting night (3-8 FGs), but did make seven of his eight FTs.
Detroit’s starting five was was nearly matched in terribleness by Toronto’s starters. Oh sure, the spry Keon Clark had 15 points on 5-7 FGs and 5-5 FTs, but the rest of them? A combined 14-46 FGs and 6-12 FTs.
That’s 30.4% from the field and if you can’t calculate the FT%, I’m not here to help you on that one, chief.
Anyways, neither club could gain separation from the other, particularly in the second half. By my count, the largest lead either attained was five points in the latter half of the game, so this was a tense, if ugly, struggle.
Tied at 79 with 2:17 left in the game, Detroit fortuitously went on a 5-0 run courtesy of Stackhouse making his first (and only) field goal of the night. Williamson then punched in a lay up and Stack made one of two free throws to make the game 84-79 with 21 seconds left.
The sizzling Curry, who made all of his fourth quarter attempts, made a three-pointer with 10.7 seconds left pulling Toronto within two points. Mo Pete intentionally fouled Stackhouse who again split his free throws giving Toronto a final chance to tie the game since they were down, 85-82.
And for some reason Chris Childs completely lost track of all reality.
Since Stack had made his second free throw, Toronto inbounded the ball with 10.7 seconds still on the clock. They had to go full court, but that’s more than enough time to potentially get a good look. Instead, Childs rushed up the court with tunnel vision and with SEVEN SECONDS left began launching a wild three-pointer on the run that missed so badly it was comical.
Befuddled teammates watched in horror as Uncle Cliffy grabbed the rebound and the Raptors’ season ended. There’ve been more heartbreaking ends to Almost Upset, but this was the funniest.
Thereafter the Pistons advanced to the semi-finals and lost to the Boston Celtics in five games.
In 2003, they further upgraded their roster by trading Stackhouse to Washington for Rip Hamilton, signed Chauncey Billups as a free agent, drafted Tayshaun Prince, and were able to bring their 2001 draft pick Mehmet Okur statesude. Those four newcomers paired wonderfully with Michael Curry, Atkins, Robinson, Barry, and Williamson. Detroit once more got 50 wins, but this time they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals before bowing out to the New Jersey Nets.
In 2004, Detroit won the title and it kind of sucked because they did so without some of the key guys who brought them out of their misery, namely Clifford Robinson and Jon Barry. And also Rick Carlisle. He was ditched as coach in favor of Larry Brown.
Anyways, a mid-season trade for Rasheed Wallace only further buttressed the Pistons’ cause as they wound up with 54 wins, beat the Indiana Pacers in the conference finals, and then depantsed the Los Angeles Lakers in stunning fashion. Detroit would make the NBA Finals again in 2005 and continue making the East Finals through 2008.
As for the Raptors…
Man, it got ugly and bad for Toronto for essentially a decade afterwards. They dropped to 24 wins in 2003. A disgruntled Carter was traded to the Nets early in the 2004 season for an even more disgruntled Alonzo Mourning, who never reported, and was eventually waived.
At least their miserable record in 2003 paved the way for drafting Chris Bosh with 4th overall pick in the 2003 draft. He got Toronto back to some level of respectability, despite whiffing massively with Andrea Bargnani. But the back-to-back playoff seasons in 2007 and 2008 are an oasis in a desert of doom.
The franchise didn’t hit any real stride again until 2014, which brought more success and plenty of hilarious playoff collapses. At least Kawhi showed up for a season and helped get them over the top.
We got one more Almost Upset in the tank and it’s a doozy.