- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

The Pistons have shown themselves to be the class of the Eastern Conference at this point in the season, notwithstanding the Celtics’ 74-win pace.

Detroit defeated the Celtics 87-85 in Boston last month, their first of three meetings this season. The two teams meet again tomorrow night in Auburn Hills, Mich.

There is a certain emptiness about where the Pistons are, as they would attest. They were the championship favorite two seasons ago, when they posted a 64-18 record and coasted the last two months of the regular season.

Yet they never quite recaptured their early-season magic and the Heat eliminated them in conference finals. They became a tired team in the playoffs, no one more fatigued than point guard Chauncey Billups.

A similar fate befell the Pistons in the playoffs last season, only this time they were dispatched to the offseason by the brilliance of LeBron James, the solo artist who trumped the celebrated ensemble cast.

Billups again appeared to have dead legs, as coach Flip Saunders remained pathologically averse to employing many bench players throughout the regular season.

Saunders appears to have overcome the aversion this season, which the faithful in Auburn Hills can take as a good sign.

Billups is averaging 33.3 minutes, the fewest since his first season with the Pistons in 2002-03.

The team’s bench has been bolstered by the presence of Jarvis Hayes, which goes with the recent history between the two franchises.

When Hayes was with the Wizards the last four seasons, he was known as a pure shooter, except he was a pure shooter with a .402 career shooting percentage and had a penchant for injuries.

Now apparently with no residual effects from his injuries, Hayes is shooting a career-high 45.6 percent with the Pistons and flourishing in his new venue.

That seems to be the case with all the ex-Wizards who land with the Pistons, whether Ben Wallace at one time or Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace who remain team fixtures.

The Wizards could trade Peter John Ramos to the Pistons — if they still had his rights — and he undoubtedly would emerge as an All-Star there.

The bench of the Pistons contributed 33 points in their 106-93 victory over the Wizards, with Jason Maxiell and Hayes scoring 15 and 12, respectively.

Maxiell, in particular, tormented the Wizards with his wide body, as players with wide bodies often do against the Wizards. Maxiell collected five offensive rebounds, as the Wizards too often neglected the basic fundamental of sticking a body on him.

The deeper bench of the Pistons should allow the starters to be fresher in the playoffs. The age of their starters is no small coaching consideration, what with Wallace and Antonio McDyess each being 33 years old, Billups 31, Richard Hamilton 29 and Tayshaun Prince the youngster of the unit at 27.

When Saunders inherited the Pistons from Larry Brown two seasons ago, he instilled life into a stale offense, and to good effect. Yet the emphasis came at some sacrifice to the defense.

Now the Pistons are back challenging a greater number of shots, and they have shaved their points allowed to 89.4 a game, second to the Celtics’ 87.0 in the NBA. Their 10.6 point differential also is the second-best in the NBA.

And these imposing numbers are not being compiled because of heavy-duty minutes going to the starters.

It was thought that James closed the Pistons’ championship window last spring. It also was thought that Joe Dumars possibly would begin to dismantle the core unit that won the 2004 NBA championship and lost to the Spurs 4-3 in the NBA Finals the next June.

Instead, Dumars added pieces around his aging core, and now the Pistons, in the midst of a 10-game winning streak, look as formidable as they did two seasons ago.

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