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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Celtics Shut Down Misfiring Pistons

The Boston Celtics outscored the Detroit Pistons 44-22 in the paint and captured game one of the Eastern Conference Finals, 88-79. Kevin Garnett scored a game-high 26 points on 11-17 field goal shooting and he also had nine rebounds and four assists as he completely dominated Rasheed Wallace (11 points on 3-12 field goal shooting, five rebounds, four assists). Fresh off of his sensational game seven performance versus Cleveland, Paul Pierce authored an excellent all-around game, finishing with 22 points, six rebounds and six assists. He often served as the primary ballhandler in Boston's half court offense, taking pressure off of young point guard Rajon Rondo and creating easy scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Rondo had a very solid game (11 points, seven assists, five steals, one turnover) and he got the better of Chauncey Billups (nine points, two assists) in a matchup that the Pistons need to win in order to defeat the Celtics. Ray Allen continued to struggle, scoring nine points on 3-10 field goal shooting, with his three hoops consisting of a two handed dunk, a layup and a layup attempt that was goaltended. Allen showed that he still has some hops (something that I wondered about after he almost missed a one handed dunk a couple games ago versus Cleveland) but he just looked tentative and out of sorts, alternately passing up shots and launching airballs from areas where he was an automatic shooter as recently as the first round of the playoffs (when he shot .400 from three point range, 18-45). Tayshaun Prince led Detroit with 16 points and Antonio McDyess had a double double (14 points, 11 rebounds) but he did most of his damage in the first quarter (eight points, seven rebounds).

The Pistons were the well rested team while the Celtics had just survived a brutal seven game series against Cleveland but at the start of the game the Celtics seemed energized and the Pistons seemed like they were resting rather than rested. Boston jumped out to an 8-0 lead with Garnett, Pierce and Allen each scoring at least one basket. As this series progresses, pay attention to the difference between the shots the Celtics take and the shots the Pistons take: Boston's defense is forcing the Pistons to take difficult, contested shots outside of the paint, while at the other end of the court the Celtics are getting into the paint at will and either scoring from close range or kicking the ball back out to wide open shooters. Boston shot 36-69 (.522) from the field while limiting Detroit to 28-66 (.424) shooting--and that is actually better than the Pistons shot against the Celtics in three regular season meetings, so don't expect this trend to change any time soon. Anyone who thinks that Cleveland's Mike Brown is a bad coach should be aware that the Celtics did not once shoot better than .500 from the field versus the Cavaliers in the previous round and that Cleveland shot better than .424 in four of the seven games. Detroit had a much better regular season record than Cleveland and plenty of time to prepare for this game and yet the Pistons executed worse on both offense and defense than the Cavaliers did. It's too bad for the Cavaliers that LeBron James did not go 3-18 from the field in game one versus Boston instead of 2-18 because Cleveland could have won that series and then beaten Detroit in this round.

The Pistons rebounded from their slow start to cut the margin to 22-17 by the end of the first quarter. They even took a 39-35 lead late in the second quarter when the Celtics went through a 3:26 cold spell during which they only scored three points. However, the Celtics quickly turned that around and held the Pistons to just one point in the final 3:25 to go up 41-40 at halftime. The Celtics had 16 assists in the first half, which play by play man Mike Breen took to be a sign of good teamwork while analyst Jeff Van Gundy preferred a different explanation: "That means you are playing at home--good scorekeeper taking care of his guys." Van Gundy seemed to be half serious and half joking when he said that but--as I noted in my recap of game seven of the Spurs-Hornets series--some scorekeepers have an extremely liberal definition of what an assist is.

During the halftime show, ESPN's Mike Wilbon expressed concern that the Celtics had played so well and yet were only up by one point but that "logic" makes no sense: the Celtics had outshot the Pistons from the field (51% to 39%), outrebounded them 20-16 and outscored them in the paint 26-10. The score was close only because the Celtics committed a few unnecessary second quarter fouls that put Detroit in the bonus and enabled the Pistons to score some points from the free throw line. Which is the more likely halftime adjustment--Boston stops fouling which makes it very hard for Detroit to score or Detroit somehow cures its shooting, rebounding and paint presence problems? Naturally, in the second half the Celtics cut down on their silly fouls while the Pistons not only struggled in the same three areas that they had problems with in the first half but they also uncharacteristically turned the ball over seven times in the third quarter. The Celtics outscored the Pistons 47-39 in the second half and that margin would have been 11 if not for a meaningless three pointer by Prince just before the final buzzer.

Shortly before the end of the game, Van Gundy perfectly summarized why Boston won: "You can't underestimate the impact that this great Celtics defense has had on the Pistons. They have taken everybody out of their individual comfort zones and the team out of what they do best."

Detroit is billed as a great defensive team that has multiple All-Stars who run an excellent offense that features high percentage shots and a low turnover rate. Prior to this game, Van Gundy said that he thinks the Pistons are the best of the four teams that remain alive in the playoffs. Although Van Gundy is an excellent analyst whose insights I respect, I think that Detroit is the worst of the four remaining teams and is actually not better than Cleveland, either--at least in terms of being able to do what is necessary to win a playoff series against a strong team, which is all that really matters at this time of year. I predicted that against Boston the Pistons' "liberation offense" (the term some people initially used to differentiate Coach Flip Saunders' offense from the supposedly restrictive attack employed by his predecessor Larry Brown) would be ineffective, particularly down the stretch, and that Boston would be able to attack Detroit in the paint; the Pistons have not defended the paint well on a consistent basis against elite teams in the playoffs since the departure of Coach Brown and four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace. The Pistons also have a tendency to become lackadaisical for long stretches--even entire games sometimes--and that is not going to get it done against a Boston team that may play harder longer than anyone else in the NBA.

It would be foolish to say that a series is over after one game but it is worth noting that the game one winner advances 79% of the time; there is a cliche about a series not starting until someone wins on the road and an oft-stated idea that winning home games is just "taking care of business"--but both of those concepts are bogus: by that logic, the Boston-Cleveland series has not started even though it is already over. In most cases, if the underdog team is going to pull off the upset they need to steal homecourt advantage right off the bat. That said, it would not shock me if Detroit came up with a great effort at some point and won a game in Boston--perhaps even in game two--but I also expect the Celtics to win at least one game in Detroit and ultimately wrap this series up in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:42 AM


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At Wednesday, May 21, 2008 8:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the Pistons are as bad as you say, or that Cleveland would have been able to easily beat them this year.
I really really don't like the Cleveland trade. As bad as Hughes seem to be, he could create his own shot, he could pass, he could defend.
He could guard Billups or Hamilton. He could also get hot once in a while. I don't think that the Cavs need more shooters more than they need a good PG.
If James didn't have to create every single time, his jumpers would fall. Everything Ben Wallace did for the Cavs, Drew Gooden did better. He also didn't cramp the paint.
The Pistons also have more energy/hustle/power guys off the bench to bump LeBron. The Pistons are better this year than last year, while the Cavs were better last year.

That said, the Pistons don't have anybody that the Celtics need to double, making their defense more potent.

If the Pistons win in Boston before the Celtics win in Detroit, it would be interesting to see how the Celtics would react.


At Thursday, May 22, 2008 8:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I didn't say that the Pistons are bad. I predicted before the playoffs that they would make the Conference Finals and then lose in this round.

I was skeptical of the trade from the outset. The new players had their moments but I agree with you that the previous team had better balance. Hughes was underrated. The Cleveland fans were chanting "Wally" even when he had a bad shooting night but they would boo Hughes starting with the first shot that he missed.

The Pistons don't guard the paint well against elite teams. Boston showed that in game one and LeBron would have taken advantage of this as well if the Cavs had knocked off the Celtics.

It would not shock me if Detroit won game two; the Pistons have had some good game twos historically. It also would not shock me if Boston answered by winning one or two in Detroit. I don't think that home court dominance will continue to prevail in this round.


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