“We all get the same, exciting feeling,” Hamilton said Friday. “It’s like the first day of school. You take your clothes out, lay them on the bed and get some brand-new sneakers.
“You’re always excited about the first game. I can’t wait.”
Detroit will host the Orlando Magic on Saturday night in Game 1 of their first-round, best-of-seven series.
The Pistons are shooting to at least reach the conference finals for the fifth straight year, a streak only one NBA team has surpassed in 20-plus years. The Los Angeles Lakers advanced to the conference finals six times in a row from 1984-89.
“We have to worry about the Magic and that’s it,” Detroit point guard Chauncey Billups said. “Do we feel like we’re built to make a long run? Yeah, we do.
“But when you overlook teams—especially a team like Orlando that is very dangerous—we can be beat and we showed that a lot of times this year.”
In recent years, the Pistons have been at their best when down or doubted and at their worst when they’re ahead or expected to win. Bucking that trend might be the biggest challenge for the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team against the only team in the playoffs that had a losing record.
The Magic are making their first postseason appearance since 2003 when Tracy McGrady and Co. blew a 3-1 lead in the first round against Detroit, which has three starters who played key roles in that series.
“It’s nothing scary,” Howard said. “It’s all new to us, but any mountain we’re faced with we can overcome.”
That’s exactly what 12-year veteran Grant Hill wants to hear from his teammates.
“We’ve got to believe we can beat them,” said Hill, who spent his first six seasons in Detroit. “They’re beatable.
“They have experience. They’ve won championships. We know all that. But either you go out there and feel like you can win the series and give yourself a chance, or you’re defeated before the series starts.”
Detroit won all four games over Orlando during the regular season, relying heavily on Billups exploiting a mismatch with Nelson. The 2004 NBA Finals MVP averaged 26 points, 50 percent above his season average, against the Magic.
The 6-foot-3, 202-pound Billups is a few inches taller and about 10 pounds heavier than Nelson. “I use my height and strength to my advantage,” he said.
Billups is aware that Nelson recently said he wanted to face Detroit in the first round.
“He got his wish,” Billups said. “But what is he supposed to say? `We’re scared. We don’t want to play them?”’
At the other end of the court, Howard gives the Pistons a tough matchup. The 6—11, 265-pound center ranked second in the NBA with 60 double-doubles. Against the Pistons, he averaged nearly 21 points and 13 1/2 rebounds a game.
“He’s a great player and you’ve got to pay attention to him,” Detroit center Chris Webber said. “We’ve just got to try to make him work hard and come at him with different people.”
Webber is the one new face this season for the Pistons, who have had four of the same starters during the past three postseason runs.
After winning a title in 2004, the Pistons lost in the NBA Finals to San Antonio and fell to Miami in last year’s conference finals.
“We’ve been looking forward to this ever since ending on a disappointing note last year,” Billups said. “We want to get back to where we feel like we deserve to be. It’s going to be a long road, but we feel like we can do it.”