Pistons Need a TuneupThe Bulls hammered the Pistons 108-92 on Tuesday and with their second straight win they have quickly turned the crowning of Detroit into a Palace (of Auburn Hills) revolt. Just two days ago, the Pistons were poised to sweep the Bulls but now they face the very real prospect of losing Game Six in Chicago on Thursday and having to win Game Seven to avoid becoming the first NBA team to ever blow a 3-0 lead in a seven game series. Chicago’s Game Five shooting was simply remarkable, particularly in the first half when the Bulls connected at a .722 rate, nearly matching the NBA record set by the Lakers (.742) on May 12, 1998 in the first half of their game versus Seattle. The Bulls cooled off to finish at “just” .573 for the game but—regardless of what happens in the rest of the series--I think that this performance and their Game Four win on Sunday have put to rest the near mythical status that some people tried to confer on Detroit Coach Flip Saunders’ zone defense. I never bought the hype, even when Detroit blew out the Bulls in Game One; I noted, "...the Bulls were able to get into the paint almost at will, mostly by dribble penetration, but they missed a lot of layups or turned the ball over." After Chicago blew a 19 point lead and lost Game Three, I still was not impressed by Detroit, writing, "On the one hand, you have to respect Detroit's ability to play at a higher level when pushed; on the other hand, you have to wonder why the Pistons are seemingly content to coast for long stretches--sooner or later, if you don't respect your opponents and/or don't respect the game then you will pay the price (not that Chicago is going to be the team to collect the toll this year)."
As Hubie Brown correctly said during Sunday’s telecast, you play zone for a change of pace or to hide poor defenders. What has happened in the past two games is that the Bulls have settled down, stopped turning the ball over and made the numerous open shots that are available against Detroit. Any time the Bulls make two passes—or a Bulls player takes two dribbles in an isolation situation—they can get an open jump shot or a clear path through the lane straight to the hoop. Winning four straight games sounds daunting and the Bulls may not be up to it but the fact is that they are already halfway there. They don’t have to win four games at once; they need to take Game Six at home and then in Game Seven all the pressure will be on Detroit, both as the favorite team that considers going to the Eastern Conference Finals their birthright and as a team that would face the ignominious prospect of being the first NBA team to ever blow a 3-0 series lead. The Pistons will surely come out with a focused and determined effort on Thursday but the question is whether they can deal with the Bulls if the Bulls remain calm and poised and continue to run their offense efficiently. This Bulls team is very well built to deal with the Pistons. As I always say about playoff series, it is important not to be swayed by the result or margin of victory of a particular game but to evaluate whether or not a team can continue to do the things that enabled it to win. Even after the Bulls got killed in Game One I said that the Bulls still had a chance in Game Two if they simply cut down on the unforced errors; the Bulls were beating themselves much more than Detroit was stopping them. The Bulls did not really wake up--or, more precisely, settle down--until Game Three and they still blew that one at the very end; now, though, they have found their stride, and if Detroit does not come up with some answers I would not be surprised to see the Bulls do the "unthinkable." I said before the series began that Chicago would beat Detroit; the Bulls certainly squandered many opportunities early in this series--creating a very steep hill to climb--but based on how they are playing now it is difficult to believe that they will lose Game Six at home. The Bulls don't have to shoot .700 to win; they simply have to attack the zone with force and conviction and make open shots.
Obviously, many Bulls had standout performances in Game Five, but particularly noteworthy are Ben Gordon (28 points, 10-16 shooting, 5-6 three point shooting), Luol Deng (20 points, seven rebounds, four assists) and Kirk Hinrich (17 points, 13 assists). Ben Wallace had a quiet night statistically (six points, five rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots) but his job is to anchor the paint; Detroit’s .423 shooting and the fact that the Pistons launched 19 three pointers (making just five) instead of attacking the hoop indicates that he and the other Bulls frontcourt players certainly had an impact on the game. Tyrus Thomas provided a lot of energy with 10 points, six rebounds, five steals and one blocked shot, a spectacular nullification of a Richard Hamilton layup that the Bulls converted into a Chris Duhon three pointer that gave them their first double digit lead, 39-28, at the 8:34 mark of the second quarter. Chauncey Billups scored ten straight points for Detroit at the end of the first half to pull the Pistons to within 59-51 at halftime but the Bulls were not rattled and proceeded to shred Detroit 33-20 in the third quarter. Billups led the Pistons with 17 points and six assists, but he shot just 5-12 from the field. Richard Hamilton had 16 points, six rebounds and five assists but shot 5-14.
The saddest thing about the Pistons is that they don't respect the game enough to always play their best. You could see this in the first round against Orlando, when they sleepwalked through most of each game before making a little run in the fourth quarter. That approach is not correct and it does not work against good teams. The Bulls took some time--maybe one game too long--to find their legs in this series but now that they have it will be interesting to see what kind of response they get from the Pistons. One of the best things about the Jordan-Pippen Bulls teams is that they never gave away games through lack of effort; whether it was a "meaningless" game in January or a game in which the Bulls trailed by 20 in the third quarter they never quit and they always, always put pressure on their opponents. That is how you win 72 and 69 games in back to back seasons--and then win championships. To hear Detroit or Dallas talk, it is some kind of burden to win 64 or more games and try to win a title; those Bulls felt a burning desire to win every single game in the regular season and the playoffs.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:36 AM