Sheed Steps Up, Pistons Advance to Fifth Straight Eastern Conference FinalsThe Detroit Pistons are at their best when Rasheed Wallace is fully engaged and focused. He seemed to drift against the Chicago Bulls at times--specifically, toward the three point line and away from the paint--but his 16 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots played a big role in Detroit's series clinching 95-85 Game Six win in Chicago on Thursday night. He still fired up too many three pointers, making just two of his eight long range heaves, but he shot 5-6 on the rest of his attempts and made his presence felt in the paint, particularly on defense. Richard Hamilton contributed a game-high 23 points and Chauncey Billups closed out the victory in his typical fashion with flawless free throw shooting; "Mr. Big Shot" was just 3-12 from the field but he nailed all 14 of his free throws, which marked the third playoff game in which he has been perfect from the free throw line with at least that many attempts, tying an NBA record held by Dolph Schayes and Kevin Johnson. Billups finished with 21 points and a team-high seven assists. Tayshaun Prince had 17 points and nine rebounds.
P.J. Brown led the Bulls with 20 points, tying his playoff career-high, but the 37 year old veteran did all of that damage in the first half. Luol Deng had 17 points, five rebounds and four assists, shooting 7-14 from the field. The Bulls might have won if Ben Gordon (19 points, 7-18 shooting) or Kirk Hinrich (11 points, 3-13 shooting) did not shoot so poorly. Ben Wallace's minutes and effectiveness were limited by a lingering back problem and he finished with six points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots.
Brown's first half performance lifted the Bulls to a 48-43 lead at halftime. Apparently, the Pistons were just coasting, as they did during much of their first round series versus the Orlando Magic, because they opened the third quarter with a 12-1 blitz from which the Bulls never recovered. The Bulls stayed within striking distance but never regained the lead or even got closer than three points. Detroit led 74-69 at the end of the third quarter.
I never thought that I would see another fourth quarter of a playoff game quite as putrid as the one that I witnessed in person on Wednesday in Cleveland but Detroit and Chicago did their best to match it: with just 1:30 remaining in the game, Detroit had outscored Chicago 11-6 in the final stanza but each team made those totals more cosmetic by putting up 10 points the rest of the way.
I respect that the Pistons can play at a very high level but I don't like their cavalier approach to the game; instead of seeking greatness, they are content to just sort of muddle along, playing their best only in fits and spurts. That almost caught up with them in this series, just like it nearly cost them against Cleveland in last year's playoffs. The truly great teams seek perfection and, even though that is unattainable, they operate at a consistently high level. This is the first time in several years that the Pistons will not exit the playoffs sooner than they did the previous year; Detroit won the 2004 championship, lost in the 2005 Finals and then fell short in the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals. Yes, that is a pretty good run overall--a total of five straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances under three coaches (Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown, Flip Saunders)--but recently the Pistons had been heading in the wrong direction in terms of trying to get a second ring.
The season was not a failure for the Chicago Bulls. They improved their regular season record by eight games, swept the defending champion Miami Heat in the first round and showed glimmers of their future promise against the Pistons. Throughout this series the Bulls were able to use their quickness to get open looks but they only converted enough of them to win two games. Ben Wallace received a lot of criticism from various quarters during the season but he clearly had a positive overall impact, even if it must gall him to lose to his old team. It will be interesting to see what personnel moves, if any, the Bulls make before the 2007-08 season begins. Depending how the ping pong balls bounce, they could have a very high draft pick that could net them the inside presence they need, either in the form of a college star or packaged with some of their players in a trade to acquire a veteran player who can score on the block.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:32 AM