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Saturday, May 31, 2008

80s Flashback: Celtics Beat Pistons, Will Meet Lakers in Finals

Paul Pierce scored a very efficient 27 points (shooting 8-12 from the field and 10-13 from the free throw line) as the Boston Celtics rallied from a 70-60 fourth quarter deficit to beat the Detroit Pistons 89-81 in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics will now advance to the NBA Finals, where they will face the L.A. Lakers in a matchup of the two most storied franchises in league history. Ray Allen added 17 points and six rebounds; he did most of his damage in the first quarter but in these tight, defensive struggles every point counts. Kevin Garnett got off to a woeful start, making just 2 of his first 10 field goal attempts, but he anchored Boston's defense throughout the game and made some key second half shots, finishing with 16 points on 7-16 field goal shooting. He also had six rebounds and four assists. Rajon Rondo added 11 points, four rebounds (all of them on the offensive glass) and three assists. He shot just 5-13 from the field. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said that Rondo's best skill is rebounding, which is a strange thing to say about a 6-1 point guard; the funny thing is that this is probably true: Rondo is not a great shooter, he is only beginning to understand when he should pass versus when he should shoot and despite his athletic gifts (long arms, quick feet, jumping ability) he was burned repeatedly on defense by the stronger, wilier and more experienced Chauncey Billups. The one thing that Rondo did really well in this game was chase down offensive rebounds.

Billups did his best to try to carry the Pistons to a seventh game in Boston, scoring 29 points, grabbing six rebounds and dishing off six assists while not committing a single turnover. The big question before the game was about the status of Richard Hamilton's right (shooting) elbow but his injury was not an issue as he scored 21 points on 9-14 field goal shooting. Tayshaun Prince scored 10 points but shot just 3-10 from the field. For the most part, the other Pistons were--as Keith Olbermann used to say on SportsCenter--just watching. Jason Maxiell provided some energy (seven points on 3-4 shooting in 16 minutes) but that was not enough to offset the lack of production from starters Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess. Wallace shot 2-12 from the field and had fewer points (four) than fouls (five), though he did grab a game-high 10 rebounds. McDyess had six points and six rebounds.

Garnett and Wallace are each marvelously skilled players but for substantial portions of this series they seemed to be engaged in a contest to see who could spend less time in the paint on offense. Midway through the fourth quarter, Van Gundy exclaimed, "I want Kevin Garnett on the post right now!" Right as he said that, Garnett made a long jumper but Mark Jackson said that--even though Garnett hit that shot--"I couldn't agree more. You've got to go with the high percentage play." The reality is that Garnett and Wallace are never going to simply plant themselves in the post and go to work; it just is not in their nature to do that. The difference between them--and the reason that Garnett is an MVP candidate while Wallace is an enigma--is that Garnett is always fully engaged in the game defensively and as a rebounder and passer, while Wallace not only drifts to the perimeter offensively but frequently seems to drift out of the game altogether. If either of their teams depended primarily on those guys providing scoring in the paint then they would be in trouble but Pierce and Allen are the usual closers for Boston while Billups and Hamilton fill that role for Detroit.

In game six, Allen and Hamilton both went to work early, with each of them scoring 10 first quarter points. The Celtics led 24-21 after the first quarter. The Celtics maintained a small lead throughout the second quarter and were up 40-37 at halftime. Boston led 52-47 at the 7:16 mark of the third quarter when Garnett got his fourth foul. Boston Coach Doc Rivers left him in the game but the Pistons went on a 6-2 run anyway and after Rivers sat him down a couple minutes later Detroit closed the quarter with a 15-6 spurt to go up 68-60. Remember the Brent Barry/Derek Fisher play at the end of game four of the Western Conference Finals, the non-call that got all the conspiracy theorists working overtime? I said that I have seen similar plays be no-calls, offensive fouls or defensive fouls and near the end of the third quarter of this game we saw a great example of what I meant: Pierce faked a shot, Hamilton made contact with him outside the three point line and both players fell to the ground after Pierce fired a shot that went through the hoop. It looked like it would be a four point play opportunity for Pierce but Bennett Salvatore called an offensive foul on Pierce. How can the Fisher play be a defensive foul--the NBA issued a statement saying that a non-shooting foul should have been called on Fisher--but this play is an offensive foul on Pierce? The simple answer is exactly what I said in my post: depending on which referee is involved, sometimes this is a no-call, sometimes it is an offensive foul and sometimes it is a defensive foul. I'm not saying that this is right or wrong, I'm just making an observation.

If the Phoenix Suns had been on the wrong end of such a call I'm not sure that their delicate psyches could have handled the extreme trauma. How can a team possibly be expected to overcome such an obstacle with more than a full quarter left to play in a close game? Forgive my sarcasm, but my point is that there are good reasons that some teams that are very talented get over the hump and other teams do not; some teams make no excuses and find ways to get things done, while other teams seem to spend more time searching for explanations for why they lost than for ways to actually win. Hamilton's jumper at the 10:29 mark of the fourth quarter made the score 70-60 Detroit and it would have been very easy for the Celtics to give in to the moment, say to themselves that this was not their night and simply rely on winning game seven at home. Instead, they scored 10 straight points in less than three minutes. The teams then traded baskets before a three point play by Pierce put Boston up 75-74. That was the start of an 11-2 run that put the Celtics in the driver's seat. A three point play by Billups cut the margin to 83-79 and a pair of missed free throws by Garnett left the door open but Pierce and Allen made two free throws each in the last :30 to preserve the victory.

For most of the game, the teams were separated by five points or less. According to the conventional wisdom, this is the type of game that Detroit should be expected to win: a close playoff game at home against a team that has struggled on the road throughout these playoffs. Yet it does not surprise me at all not only that the Pistons lost but that they lost in precisely the manner that they did; after all, I predicted virtually this entire scenario in my series preview: I mentioned Boston's superiority in rebounding, I pointed out that Detroit never shot better than .410 from the field versus Boston during the regular season, I declared "the Celtics are an outstanding defensive team that will outexecute the Pistons down the stretch" and I concluded, "Coach Flip Saunders' much vaunted 'liberation offense' works a lot better in the regular season against overmatched teams than it does in the latter stages of the playoffs against elite teams. Look for the Pistons to have some brutal fourth quarter stretches offensively, look for the Celtics to finally win a road playoff game and look for Boston to win this series in six games." In the comment section to that post I made the additional point that since the departure of Coach Larry Brown and four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace the Pistons have had trouble defending the paint in the playoffs.

Let's look at how each one of those factors played out in this game and in the series:

1) Rebounding

The Celtics outrebounded the Pistons 38-36 in game six and in the fourth quarter with the game up for grabs (no pun intended) the Celtics enjoyed a 12-6 rebounding advantage. During the series, the Celtics outrebounded the Pistons 238-191, a differential of 7.8 rpg, and they enjoyed an edge in this category in every game except game one, when each team had 37 rebounds.

2) Boston's Defensive Field Goal Percentage

The Pistons shot .420 from the field in game six, including 6-18 in the fourth quarter--and the final basket was an uncontested shot with the outcome of the game no longer in doubt. In three of Boston's four wins the Pistons shot worse than .425 from the field. The Pistons shot .493 in their game two win and .514 in their game four win to boost their series percentage to .450 but the Celtics' ability to hold down the Pistons' field goal percentage proved to be a decisive factor in this series.

3) Brutal Fourth Quarter Stretch Dooms Pistons

In addition to shooting 6-18 from the field in the fourth quarter of game six, the Pistons committed six turnovers, a staggering number for a team that is renowned for its ability to protect the ball--but, as I stated in my series preview, Saunders' "liberation offense" works a lot better in the regular season than it does in the playoffs against elite teams. The Celtics outscored the Pistons 29-13 in the fourth quarter of game six. The Pistons actually had some decent fourth quarters earlier in the series but at various times in each of their losses their offense went through some stagnant periods.

4) Celtics Beat Pistons on the Road Twice

Despite the Celtics' road woes in earlier playoff rounds, they beat the Pistons twice in Detroit, winning the series in six games exactly as I expected.

5) Points in the Paint

The Celtics outscored the Pistons in the paint 32-18 in game six and enjoyed a 206-130 advantage in this category during the series, an average of 12.7 more points in the paint per game. The Celtics won this department by at least 10 points in every game except their game four loss, when each team scored 24 points in the paint.

My final comment in that series preview post was that--although there is no way to prove it--if the Cavaliers had gotten past the Celtics then they would have beaten the Pistons. Considering that the Cavs forced the Celtics to a seventh game and had a chance to win that contest right until the end while the Pistons bowed out on their home court in game six, I remain confident that the Cavs would indeed have defeated the Pistons just like they did last year.

Perhaps readers who think that I "hate" the Pistons will now understand clearly that all I am doing is analyzing matchups; I identified specific reasons why the Celtics would beat the Pistons and the series went exactly as I predicted it would.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:59 AM



At Saturday, May 31, 2008 11:42:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Wow and Ive been down on the NBA for years. But this is a beautiful thing. Some of the greatest sports years of my life are the 84-85 and 87 Celts v Lakers. Watching it with my father (RIP) learning the game and enjoying the essence of basketball. The CBS intro, the bias of Dick Stockton and Tom Heinsohn (last night during the post game Garnett said Hubie and Stockton but thats ok), the little basketball court at the beginning I could go on. So I will...the Memorial Day Massacre...Im sure these are all images we will see on NBATV and ESPNClassic the next few days.

At Saturday, May 31, 2008 4:55:00 PM, Blogger Duke said...

Sorry, originally posted this to the wrong entry:

Just started reading your blog. Love it! Your first sentence today refers to Pierce's "efficiency." It's a stat that’s severely distorted, and maybe you'll see my point. Player A gets 30 points on 20 “shots,” (let’s just say they’re all deuces in these examples) 10-14 free throws, and he’s lauded for his offensive efficiency. Player B gets 30 points on 30 shots, 0-1 at the line, and people complain it took 30 whole shots to get his numbers. Inefficient.

But look at what really happened. Player A took 20 “official” shots. Shots on which he was fouled and missed aren’t counted. Those plays result with free throws. In my example that’s the equivalent of taking 7 more shots (7 pairs of throws equals two points each, aka a field goal). Now this simplified scenario becomes 30 points on 27 “shots.” Not every efficient.

Player B’s line is self-evident. But consider that his extra 5 missed shots had a 29% chance of becoming an offensive rebound for his team. (Celtics’ 11 offensive boards came from 38 total rebounds = 29% offensive.) It’s obvious that the odds of an offensive rebound are far greater during floor play than in a free throw situation. This is just one mitigating factor benefitting the inefficient player that’s not counted. Cases could also be made for free throws disrupting game flow and momentum, for technical foul shots benefitting Player A, for simple contrasting styles of play between A and B.

Yes, I understand there *are* factors that help make the stat meaningful: ‘and-ones,’ three-point shots, fouls off the dribble in penalty situations. Those are value-added plays that result in the free throws that add to a player’s efficiency.

But mostly, the stat reflects simply how many foul shots a player makes. I randomly went back to a game from the Phoenix-San Antonio series and looked up Shaq’s line. He had 19 points on 13 FGA. Not bad efficiency in most people’s book. But we know he was 7-14 at the line. We know how disruptive that was to the Suns’ offense.

The stat should probably be dropped in favor of simply stating a player’s FG and FT numbers. But if we’re going to continue using it, the FGA component of the “efficiency stat” should be modified to “possessions that ended with a player making an FGA or FTA.”

At Saturday, May 31, 2008 8:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


When I refer to a player's efficiency I am making my own value judgment and am not referring to the NBA's Efficiency statistic or any other statistics unless I specifically say so. In Pierce's case, his game was efficient because he did not take bad shots and he did not use wasted, extra dribbles.

At Sunday, June 01, 2008 2:10:00 AM, Blogger Duke said...

Sorry. Did not mean it in any way to be a gripe against you. It's just something I've had in my craw generally when I hear reference to efficiency. I wrote it here because I thought your expertise (and it's considerable) could maybe help champion the cause of discrediting the conventional interpretation of the "stat." It so happens that my fave player is Kobe, one who benefits greatly from the status quo. So I'm not a bitter honk trying to adjust perception for ulterior motives. I just think it's pretty much a useless stat.

At Sunday, June 01, 2008 6:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


No offense taken. I was just clarifying what I mean when I use the word efficiency in a basketball analysis context.


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