Misfiring Pistons are on the Brink of EliminationDetroit's season long quest to avenge last year's loss in the NBA Finals seems like it is about to end. The Miami Heat outscored the Pistons 27-18 in the fourth quarter and their 89-78 win gave them a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. Dwyane Wade had another tremendous game, scoring 31 points on 8-11 field goal shooting and 15-19 free throw accuracy while adding six rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocked shots. He is averaging 30.8 ppg on .695 field goal shooting versus Detroit. Shaquille O'Neal contributed 21 points, nine rebounds and one blocked shot. He had no assists for the third straight game, but shot 8-12 from the field. Look at those numbers again: Wade and O'Neal combined to shoot 16-23 from the field.
Detroit's defensive plan is hard to decipher because the Pistons are failing to contain Wade, O'Neal or the Heat role players, who chipped in with timely baskets. What kind of defense takes nothing away from the opponent? Miami shot .549 from the field and drove the ball to the basket enough to attempt 47 free throws, making 28--not a great percentage but those points add up, particularly in a low scoring game. Paraphrasing a famous lament that I believe originated with former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach John McKay, Detroit's defense was bad, but the Pistons made up for it by shooting .390 from the field and .545 on their free throws. Tayshaun Prince led Detroit with 15 points, 11 of them scored in the first quarter. Chauncey Billups had an awful first half--a recurring theme for him in this year's playoffs--but finished with 14 points and seven assists.
Miami raced out to a 42-28 advantage but Detroit countered with a 29-11 run to take a 57-53 lead midway through the third quarter. After that, Detroit seemed to run out of gas and Miami--particularly Wade--found a second wind. Wade scored 12 fourth quarter points and made a couple spectacular plays. If you didn't see his acrobatic layup with 11:03 remaining in the fourth quarter, don't worry; just turn on your TV to any sports channel and it's probably being replayed right now. During ESPN Radio's broadcast of the game, Jim Durham said that it was the greatest playoff shot ever. Jim, in a word: No. Julius Erving's reverse layup in the 1980 Finals was actually three moves: Dr. J jumped to dunk the ball but when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came over late Doc looked to pass but no one cut to the hoop in time--so Doc simply glided to the other side and flipped in a reverse layup off of the backboard. You have to watch the play in slow motion or see stop action photos of it to really understand what he did. Doc had the ball over his head for the dunk, then he held the ball horizontally over the sideline to throw a pass and then he brought the ball around for the shot--and he did all three things while he was in the air! Anyway, Wade's shot and free throw (Antonio McDyess fouled Wade on the play) put Miami up 63-61 and the Heat never trailed again.
The Pistons like to say "If it ain't rough, it ain't right." Things are plenty rough right now and if they get any rougher the Pistons will be watching the NBA Finals on TV. Perhaps they should resurrect a phrase that once was their mantra: "Play the right way," Larry Brown's exhortation. There is a reason that I picked Detroit to fall off in the Eastern Conference this year (as you can see by reading my 2005-2006 Eastern Conference Preview, Part I)--I was wrong about the regular season, but the misgivings that I had about Flip Saunders' ability to take this team to a championship are proving to be well grounded. I thought that it would be the dynamic offensive attack of New Jersey's Kidd-Carter-Jefferson trio that would be the Pistons' undoing and, following my logic of picking Dallas to win it all since the Mavericks took out the Spurs (my original pick to win the NBA title), I probably should have picked Miami to beat Detroit. Frankly, both teams are flawed when compared to championship contenders from other seasons; Detroit does not bring full intensity and concentration to every game and Miami relies very heavily on the production of Shaq and Wade, both of whom are injury prone--Shaq because of his age and conditioning, Wade because of his pell-mell style of play. Before the season I picked Miami as the best team in the East, almost by default. When New Jersey came on in the second half of the season I thought that the Nets had a great chance to advance to the NBA Finals. Until Miami knocked off the Nets I had been consistent in saying that the Flip Saunders-coached Pistons would not make it to the NBA Finals. Obviously, I should have stuck with that line of reasoning.
Miami's flaws are certainly not being exposed in this series. Shaq looks livelier than he has in quite some time and Detroit seems to have no answer for Wade. Flip Saunders is known as an innovative offensive coach, but the only offenses that have looked good in Detroit's 2006 playoff run are those being run by their opponents. His players are publicly criticizing his game plans and his substitution patterns; Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace said that the team's practices focus too much on offense and not enough on defense, which used to be the team's trademark. There are two issues here. One, it is certainly poor form for highly paid athletes to disrespect their boss so openly and brazenly. Two, granting that the conduct of the Pistons' players is deplorable, what does it say about Saunders as a coach that veteran players who have won a championship and been to two NBA Finals apparently think that he has no clue about how to run the team? What if the players are wrong in their actions but right in their assessment of the situation? It will be an interesting offseason for Joe Dumars, one that figures to start a few weeks earlier than he had expected or hoped.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:04 AM