BAD BOYS ARE BACK! read a visiting fan's sign at Indiana's Conseco
Fieldhouse on Sunday night, when the Detroit Pistons moved to
within a game of their first NBA Finals since 1990. An intriguing
notion, to be sure, what with the return of Detroit's
blue-and-red uniforms to early June and the defense that had
become the league's most intimidating, but let's not get ahead of
ourselves: These are not your daddy's (or Isiah's) Pistons. How
quickly people forget that the original Bad Boys exhibited their
nasty streak at both ends of the court, racking up more than 100
points a game; today's group needs two overtimes to break that

It was all Detroit could do on Sunday to amass enough baskets to
claim a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals over the
Pacers. After getting blown out at home 83-68 last Friday, the
Pistons went scoreless for almost five minutes during a close
second quarter of Game 5. That's when 6'7" shooting guard Richard
(Rip) Hamilton came to the rescue, pouring in 24 of Detroit's
next 29 points to help open up a decisive 55-43 lead. To Pistons
coach Larry Brown, Hamilton must have seemed a taller, gentler
and more reliable version of Allen Iverson--a fitting trade-up
after Brown's six embattled years in charge of the Philadelphia
76ers. "[The playoffs are] when stars are made," said point guard
Chauncey Billups after helping set up Hamilton for a
career-playoff-high 33 points in the 83-65 victory. "And he's
becoming a star."

That's what Detroit G.M. (and former Bad Boy) Joe Dumars had in
mind when he acquired Hamilton in a controversial six-player
trade that sent All-Star guard Jerry Stackhouse to the Washington
Wizards in 2002. While Hamilton has had a high profile since
1999, when he scored 27 points to lead UConn to the national
championship, this postseason has answered the biggest question
about his pro prospects: Can his bony 193-pound frame hold up to
the most withering kind of NBA pounding? With increasing
intensity as the playoffs progressed, the Milwaukee Bucks, the
New Jersey Nets and the Pacers have elbowed, tripped, grabbed and
banged Hamilton in an effort to disrupt his relentless sprinting
through the lane and around screens. Yet in each round his
scoring has risen; through five games against Indiana he was
averaging 24.2 points--6.6 more than he did in the regular
season--on 46.0% shooting.

"He never wears down," says Billups. "Teams put a beating on him,
and we're picking him up five or six times a game, but Rip never
gets tired. He's like Iverson in that way."

Like Iverson, Hamilton excels at moving without the ball--"I
never take a possession off," Rip says--which makes him the ideal
catalyst to spark the Pistons' often-stagnant half-court offense.
To get open he zips and darts and bounces around the court like
Barry Sanders crisscrossing the field; once he catches the ball,
his release is as quick and accurate as Dan Marino's. Having
demonstrated that they're unable to keep up with him, Indiana's
Reggie Miller and Ron Artest should not be surprised that
Hamilton has been a sub-five-minute miler since his days at
Coatesville (Pa.) Area High and that his favorite summer shooting
drills involve full-court dashes between attempts. "Otherwise,"
says Hamilton, 26, "it's boring."

Detroit's big issue for the remainder of the Eastern finals was
the health of Rasheed Wallace, whose plantar fasciitis in his
left foot subsided enough to allow him to score 22 points on
Sunday. The Pistons needed him active at the offensive end to
take pressure off Hamilton and create space for Billups, who had
shot a disappointing 38.6% in the postseason at week's end. Only
then could they hope to live up to their Bad Boys legacy--and, if
they made the Finals, bring a welcome touch of menace to that
series as well. --Ian Thomsen

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Hamilton's scoring has risen in each series.