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Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Joy of Six: Detroit Advances to the Eastern Conference Finals Again

The Detroit Pistons beat the Orlando Magic 91-86 on Tuesday to win that series four games to one and thus advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the sixth straight season. The Showtime Lakers from the 1980s are the most recent team to make it to the Conference Finals at least six years in a row (they did it from 1982-89), so this is quite an accomplishment for the Pistons. On the other hand, the Lakers did a much better job of taking advantage of those opportunities than the Pistons have: the Lakers made it to the Finals seven times and won four championships during their run while the Pistons have only made two Finals appearances and won just one title during their streak. Basically, the Pistons of the 2000s are like the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s: perennial playoff contenders who won one championship. That is nothing to sneeze at but--at least in the Pistons' case--it seems like a talented team that has good roster stability among its core players should probably have won more than a single title and I'm sure that the Pistons' management, coaches and players feel the same way.

Orlando was competitive with Detroit in every game except the first one and could very possibly have won game two on the road if not for a bizarre clock malfunction at the end of the third quarter that ended up costing the Magic three points in a contest that was a one possession game for most of the fourth quarter. That said, this could possibly have been a Detroit sweep if Pistons' All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups had not strained his right hamstring early in game three, Orlando's only victory. The Pistons won the final two games of the series despite being without the services of Billups, who will now get a few days to rest before Detroit plays the winner of the Boston-Cleveland series.

The two key factors in this series turned out to be Detroit's frontcourt depth and Orlando's poor offensive execution, particularly down the stretch in close games. Detroit used four bigs--Rasheed Wallace (34.0 mpg), Antonio McDyess (27.2 mpg), Jason Maxiell (21.0 mpg) and Theo Ratliff (11.8 mpg)--to match up with Dwight Howard, who is the only legitimate big on the Orlando roster and thus had to play a series-high 42.6 mpg. Despite playing five mpg more than he did in the regular season, Howard's numbers were down across the board as he averaged fewer points and rebounds than he did in the regular season and shot much worse from the field and the free throw line: he averaged 20.7 ppg and a league-best 14.2 rpg while shooting .599 from the field and .590 from the free throw line in the regular season but those numbers dipped to 15.2 ppg, 13.4 rpg, .509 field goal percentage and .513 free throw percentage versus Detroit. Orlando must acquire another power player who can give Howard some support in the paint offensively and defensively.

Orlando averaged 15.2 turnovers per game versus Detroit while only forcing 8.0 turnovers per game; in tennis it is called an unforced error if you just hit the ball into the net and the Magic had a lot of turnovers that could rightly be called "unforced errors." Other than the game one blowout, their losses were by seven, one and five, which means that those turnovers and the squandered possessions that they represent were fatal for Orlando. In general I don't rely much on the assist/turnover ratio statistic because not every good pass is logged as an assist and not every turnover stems from making a bad pass but Orlando had 76 assists and 76 turnovers in this series and it is hard to beat a good team with those kinds of numbers (Detroit had 90 assists and 40 turnovers). Jameer Nelson had an acceptable ratio of 23 assists and eight turnovers but 23 assists in five games is a low number for a starting point guard. Orlando's primary playmaker is Hedo Turkoglu and his assist/turnover ratio of 28/21 was very poor. Orlando's other starting forward, Rashard Lewis, had 12 assists and 17 turnovers, which obviously is a terrible ratio. Howard had one assist and 14 turnovers, while starting shooting guard Maurice Evans had four assists and six turnovers, so none of Orlando's starters distinguished themselves in this area. Orlando really needs to get a reliable ballhandler/playmaker who can dribble penetrate and create scoring opportunities for Howard in the paint and for Turkoglu, Lewis and Nelson on the perimeter. Perhaps Nelson will grow into this role but he really seems to be more of a scorer by nature.

The Pistons only shot .424 from the field versus the Magic and were outrebounded slightly but they shot a much higher percentage from the free throw line than the Magic did and they took advantage of the extra possessions that they had because of the favorable turnover differential. Young Rodney Stuckey filled in capably for Billups, while Richard Hamilton had a very strong series (23.6 ppg). The nagging question about the Pistons is the same one that has existed ever since the departure of Coach Larry Brown and defensive stalwart Ben Wallace: will Detroit be focused night in and night out? They dropped two games in the first round to a sub-.500 Philadelphia team and they could have easily lost some more games versus Orlando if the Magic had not been so careless with the basketball; neither Boston nor Cleveland turns the ball over the way that Orlando does, so if the Pistons sleepwalk when they face one of those teams and end up in close games down the stretch they will not be able to rely on their opponent simply self destructing.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:31 AM

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