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Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Big Payback: Boston Reasserts Control Over Detroit With Dominant Road Victory

I don't know karate, but I know KA-RAZY!!
Get ready, that's a fact--get ready for the big payback--James Brown, "The Payback"

Detroit's fans showed up at game three of the Eastern Conference Finals ready to cheer for their conquering heroes after the Pistons' road win in game two but by the second half the Pistons trailed by 24 and boos echoed through the Palace of Auburn Hills. The Pistons made a late run but never got closer than nine points as the Celtics regained homecourt advantage with a 94-80 victory. Kevin Garnett made big plays at both ends of the court, leading the Celtics in points (22), rebounds (13) and assists (six). Ray Allen struggled with his shot again (5-16 from the field) after seeming to break out of his postseason slump in game two but he still finished second on the Celtics with 14 points while also playing a good floor game (six rebounds, six assists). Paul Pierce had a curiously quiet game, scoring just 11 points on 4-6 shooting and committing a game-high five turnovers. He did play good defense on Tayshaun Prince, though, holding him to four points on 2-11 shooting. Richard Hamilton scored a game-high 26 points but the other Detroit starters left a lot to be desired in terms of energy and execution. Rodney Stuckey scored 17 points and had four assists in 28 minutes off the bench and Coach Flip Saunders kept him on the court for significant fourth quarter minutes in place of the ineffective Chauncey Billups (six points, four assists, 1-6 field goal shooting).

The Celtics set the tone immediately with an 11-0 run to start the game. How those points were scored is very significant: Pierce dunk, Kendrick Perkins dunk, Garnett jumper, Rajon Rondo layup (three point play), Allen reverse layup--that is a veritable layup drill and the Celtics outscored the Pistons 34-24 in the paint overall but that should not surprise anyone because they have owned a double-digit edge in that category in each of the games in this series. Garnett picked up his second foul at the 7:00 mark in the first quarter and after he went to the bench the Pistons went to work, using a 13-4 run to take a 17-15 lead--their biggest (and only) lead of the entire game. The Celtics closed the quarter with a 10-0 run.

The second quarter was essentially a rerun of the first quarter once Garnett checked back into the game. Saunders' vaunted "liberation offense" produced 32 first half points on 12-38 (.316) field goal shooting as Boston enjoyed an 18 point lead that was supposedly "shocking"--anyone who was that surprised really needs to check out the previews and game recaps at this site: while many "experts" acted like the sky was falling for the Celtics after Detroit's game two win in Boston, I calmly explained why Boston would win game three:

I expect the Celtics to reciprocate with a road win of their own, probably in game three...the important numbers to consider in this series (and in most series) are defensive field goal percentage, rebounding and points in the paint. The Celtics had some major slippage in defensive field goal percentage and that--plus the excessive fouling--is what cost them this game. Boston outrebounded Detroit and outscored Detroit 36-24 in the paint. Assuming that the Celtics regain their defensive edge while maintaining their scoring and rebounding advantages in the paint, Boston will soon regain home court advantage in this series.

I already talked about Boston's points in the paint advantage in game three. The Celtics also outrebounded Detroit 44-28 and held the Pistons to 28-73 (.384) field goal shooting--including 1-13 (.077) from three point range. The Pistons cannot win this series while they are leaking so much oil in those three categories and it is not at all clear what adjustments they can make to fix those problems.

The Pistons did enjoy some success in the fourth quarter by going small and using a 1-2-2 zone to put pressure on ballhandlers and force turnovers. That generated some transition points, something that Detroit really needs since it is so difficult to score against Boston in the halfcourt set. However, don't expect the 1-2-2 zone to be nearly as effective the next time the Pistons use it. You cannot beat good NBA teams with a steady diet of zone defense; that is why even teams that regularly use a zone go in and out of it and don't play it for extended stretches of time. It can be a good surprise weapon in short bursts but eventually a good NBA team will get the ball to the middle of the zone, collapse the defense and then reverse the ball to open shooters. Each time the Celtics did that they obtained open shots but a few times they rushed things and turned the ball over. If Detroit opens game four with that zone expect to see Boston expose so many holes in it that it will look like the Swiss cheese defense--and that is the very reason that I think Saunders will not use the zone at the start of the game but instead selectively employ it later in the game, possibly against the second unit.

The easy assumption is that now that the Pistons are facing some adversity they will bounce back and win game four and that may very well happen but there are two important things to consider: one, Boston's formula--winning the points in the paint battle, posting an excellent defensive field goal percentage and controlling the boards--is a good recipe to win on the road, a recipe that can overcome offensive slumps by one or two players (witness Pierce's subpar scoring and Allen's erratic shooting); two, even if the Pistons win game four they will still have to win another game in Boston in order to advance to the Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:21 AM

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