Celtics Survive Late Detroit Rally to Win Game Five, 106-102The Boston Celtics dominated the paint, built a 17 point second half lead and withstood a big fourth quarter rally by the Detroit Pistons to post a 106-102 victory in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics are one win away from making their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1987. Kevin Garnett scored a game-high 33 points on 11-17 field goal shooting. He only had seven rebounds, he committed a team-high five turnovers and he did most of his scoring by making jumpers instead of posting up but scoring that many points on that kind of shooting in a pressure-packed game--more than 80% of game five winners in 2-2 series advance--is very impressive. While Garnett poured in jumpers from all angles, Kendrick Perkins did the dirty work in the paint, scoring a playoff career-high 18 points on 8-11 shooting and grabbing a playoff career-high 16 rebounds. Ray Allen had his best game of this year's playoffs, scoring 29 points on 9-15 field goal shooting, including a blistering 5-6 from three point range. Add those numbers up and you will find that Boston's top three scorers in this game shot 28-43 (.651) from the field. Paul Pierce had a solid game as well (16 points on 5-11 shooting, six assists, five rebounds). Rajon Rondo scored seven points and he shot just 3-14 from the field but he played a well rounded floor game, accumulating 13 assists, six rebounds and four steals while only having one turnover. Boston's bench only scored three points in 30 minutes of combined playing time as Celtics Coach Doc Rivers shortened his rotation tremendously.
Chauncey Billups led Detroit with 26 points and six assists, while Richard Hamilton had 25 points and six assists but also committed a game-high six turnovers. Hamilton injured his right elbow late in the game and had his arm in a sling when he left the arena, although preliminary X-rays were negative. Rasheed Wallace shot 6-9 from three point range and finished with 18 points but he only had four rebounds. Billups and Antonio McDyess led Detroit with five rebounds each.
I have repeatedly said that the three keys for the Celtics to win this series are their defensive field goal percentage, their rebounding and their ability to outscore the Pistons in the paint. Perceptive readers will note that those categories are interrelated. In game five, the Celtics shot 37-73 (.507) from the field while holding the Pistons to 31-67 (.463) shooting. During the season the Celtics had a much better defensive field goal percentage than that; nevertheless, the Celtics still outshot the Pistons and in a close game between teams that are fairly evenly matched that is very important. The Celtics outrebounded the Pistons 42-25; at halftime, Perkins had more rebounds (13) than Detroit's entire team (11)! The Celtics outscored the Pistons 36-16 in the paint and they have enjoyed double digit leads in this department in four of the five games. Looking at those numbers, it would seem like the Celtics should have won game five by a more comfortable margin. Detroit made up some ground by enjoying an edge in free throws made (29-24), by shooting excellently from three point range (11-21) and by forcing 17 turnovers.
In a harbinger of things to come, the Celtics scored their first points of the game by completely breaking down Detroit's defense in the paint: Pierce passed to Kevin Garnett in the high post and Garnett fed Perkins on the low block for a dunk. Boston built a 21-16 lead but the Pistons closed the first quarter with a 7-2 run to tie the score at 23-23.
The Pistons opened the second quarter with a 10-2 run to take their largest lead of the game. Eight of those points came on dunks and free throws. Detroit benefited from a dubious flagrant foul call when P.J. Brown contested Jason Maxiell's dunk attempt at the 10:28 mark. A flagrant foul is supposed to be called when there is excessive contact that includes a windup, a significant impact and a follow through; if all of those conditions are met then a flagrant two foul--resulting in immediate ejection of the guilty party--will be called, otherwise it is a flagrant one foul, which means that the offended team is awarded two free throws plus possession of the ball. The Brown-Maxiell play did not include any of the required elements, which Van Gundy and Mark Jackson both immediately noted (though not in so many words). Mike Breen defended the call, saying that making contact with an airborne player is dangerous. I am sympathetic with Breen's concerns and the issue he mentioned is precisely why I thought that the fouls by DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood against LeBron James and the foul by Jason Kidd against Jannero Pargo all warranted the flagrant designation. However, Brown's play was simply a clean, hard foul. Van Gundy predicted that the league office will rescind the flagrant foul in this instance but he noted that if the Celtics were to lose as a result of the free throws and extra possession then such an admission of error would be of little value.
Detroit's second quarter run was fueled in part by several Boston turnovers. Once the Celtics got their ballhandling under control they closed the quarter by outscoring the Pistons 27-13. Several of Boston's turnovers in this game resulted from overpassing as players who were open for shots instead tried to feed their teammates; Van Gundy said, "Sometimes the most unselfish play is taking the open shot"--which is a point that I made regarding Kobe Bryant's 28 point, one assist performance in the Lakers' 93-91 win over the Spurs on Tuesday: "Bryant understands that when he is the open man he has to knock down shots; it is not unselfish to pass the ball when you are open and the player you are passing to is well defended." Van Gundy repeatedly admonished Garnett and Rondo for passing the ball when they were wide open. Some people ask why I often mention Bryant in posts about games in which he did not play but the answer to that should be obvious: Bryant is the best, most fundamentally sound player in the game, so it is often instructive to contrast the way that he plays with the way that other, less skilled players play. An uninformed person will look at a boxscore, see one assist by Bryant's name and 13 assists by Rondo's name and conclude that Bryant is selfish and Rondo is selfless--but an informed observer like Van Gundy understands that player evaluation must go a lot deeper than box score numbers. Statistics have great value but only when they are placed in proper context.
The Celtics extended their 52-46 halftime lead to 73-56 during the third quarter. Boston continued to punish Detroit on the glass and with points in the paint. Then, as Detroit scrambled to deal with those problems Allen suddenly found his shooting stroke and poured in 16 third quarter points. However, Van Gundy foreshadowed the close ending of the game when he observed that the Celtics began playing with less crispness on offense and less energy on defense after they got the big lead; he warned that such a loss of focus could let the Pistons get back in the game. Sure enough, the Pistons cut the margin to eight early in the fourth quarter and what could have been a Celtics rout turned into a real nail biter. It looked like the Celtics started playing not to lose rather than aggressively trying to win the game; Jackson said, "This is as poor an execution of pick and roll basketball to close out a game as I've ever seen." After Rodney Stuckey's three pointer at the 1:23 mark made the score 100-99 Boston, the Celtics seemed to be on the verge of a collapse like the one that Portland experienced versus the Lakers in the 2000 playoffs. The Celtics called a timeout and then ran a very nice play that led to Allen drilling an open jumper from just inside the three point line. Billups then missed two shots and Garnett missed a jumper. Rather than letting Detroit even attempt a tying three pointer, Rivers instructed his player to foul and essentially turn the final seconds of the game into a free throw contest. Stuckey made both of his free throws but Allen restored the three point advantage by also making two free throws. With the time remaining down to :04 and the Pistons out of timeouts, it became necessary for Detroit to try to make the first free throw, miss the second and then control the rebound. Ironically, Stuckey missed the first free throw while trying to make it and then made the second free throw while trying to miss it. Garnett closed out the scoring by sinking two clutch free throws to make it a two possession game.
The Pistons have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for six straight seasons but unless they can win two games in a row against the team with the best regular season record in the NBA this will be their third consecutive defeat in this round of the playoffs. Their only two Finals appearances during the past six years came with Larry Brown as the coach and a young Ben Wallace patrolling the paint. Without Brown's leadership and Wallace's paint presence, the Pistons have simply not been the same team in the playoffs: they do not defend the paint well on a consistent basis against elite teams and their "liberation offense" is unproductive for long stretches.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:59 AM