AUBURN HILLS – The first season the Pistons called The Palace home ended in a championship rally. Their final season at one of the NBA’s most historically influential arenas came to a close Monday night far less gloriously but doing nothing to diminish the memories accumulated over 29 remarkable years.
“The electricity in here – the building was crazy,” Ish Smith said of the 21,012 sellout that saw Washington hang on against Stan Van Gundy’s patched-together lineup for a 105-101 win. “Jerry (Hendon, longtime Pistons security chief) was telling us that it used to be like that every night. That’s how we’ve got to get it back when we go downtown, but the fans were amazing tonight. It’s a chapter that’s closed, but it was great tonight.”
The night wove together threads of the franchise’s past, present and future.
Some all-time greats were in attendance, including former Detroit mayor and Pistons Hall of Famer Dave Bing – who never played a home game in a Pistons uniform outside Detroit’s city limits and has long advocated for the franchise’s return to downtown.
T-shirts emblazoned with the names of every Pistons player to suit up for them during their 29-year run at The Palace were draped over every seat in the arena. Dennis Rodman made a surprise appearance, delivering the game ball to center court for tipoff, and he was joined for a halftime celebration of the three NBA championship trophies won during The Palace era by Pistons royalty: Isiah Thomas, John Salley, John Long, James Edwards and Rick Mahorn from the Bad Boys and Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince from the Goin’ to Work 2004 champions.
“I think everybody that was here, everybody that was watching, could definitely sense the crowd,” said a big part of their present, Reggie Jackson, whose preseason injury and subsequent diminished play cast a pall over a season that began with great expectations. “Tough day. Last game the Pistons will play here, but we definitely appreciated all the support throughout the years. We loved trying to make every moment special.”
With not only Jackson sidelined but backup point guard Beno Udrih out after suffering a sprained knee in Sunday’s win at Memphis, Van Gundy had to make do with Smith and second-year shooting guard Darrun Hilliard at the point.
Two players Van Gundy expects to be part of next year’s rotation, Boban Marjanovic and Henry Ellenson, again got extended looks. On their third game in four nights after long bouts of inactivity this season, Van Gundy saw signs of fatigue in Marjanovic and limited Ellenson to 17 minutes in some measure due to his matchup with Markieff Morris, twin brother of Pistons forward Marcus Morris.
“I thought Boban struggled in the first half and I even talked to my staff at halftime about should we sit him down in the second half,” Van Gundy said. “He looked really tired. But, damn, he bounced back and played well. I was really impressed with him and proud of him in the second half.
“We didn’t bring Henry back in. Tobias (Harris) was playing real well and that group was going well, so he got a little bit fewer minutes than what I had hoped. That’s probably the toughest matchup he’s had to play against, so it was good to put those guys in that situation.”
It was nearly a year to the day – April 8, 2016 – when the Pistons knocked off Washington at The Palace to clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2009, a night Jackson scored 39 points.
They expect Jackson back at full health next season, young veterans like Harris and Morris to continue their career ascents, greater contributions from others already here like Ellenson, Marjanovic and Stanley Johnson, plus a few roster tweaks and a little better luck on the injury front.
And they expect the type of electricity that flowed through The Palace one last time – the kind that made it one of the NBA’s crown jewels and a feared destination for opponents – to follow them downtown to Little Caesars Arena next fall.
“This building has been great for the Pistons and we understand that, but as much as we’re saying goodbye, we’re excited about the move forward,” Van Gundy said. “I think everything about these last couple of games and the last night here is about looking forward, not back.”