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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Oh, No Mr. Bill(ups): Chauncey Billups Injured Early, Magic Rout Misfiring Pistons

Don't count the Orlando Magic out just yet. Rashard Lewis scored a playoff career-high 33 points as the Magic beat the Detroit Pistons 111-86 to cut Detroit's lead to two games to one in their second round series--but the most significant development in this matchup may have happened at the 8:11 mark in the first quarter when Chauncey Billups landed awkwardly, injured his right hamstring and had to miss the rest of the game. The Magic raced to leads of 16-2 and 24-6 and were ahead 30-16 at the end of the first quarter. The Pistons eventually rallied in the second half to pull within 70-66 before the Magic went on a 14-3 run and coasted to victory. While Lewis bombed away from long range, shooting 5-6 on three pointers, Dwight Howard controlled the paint, scoring 20 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking six shots. Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson each added 18 points. Richard Hamilton (24 points) and Tayshaun Prince (22 points) led Detroit in scoring, while Rasheed Wallace had a very quiet game (11 points on 4-15 field goal shooting, four rebounds, 0 assists, 0 blocked shots). Billups' replacement Rodney Stuckey scored 19 points but shot just 5-13 from the field and he only had two assists. The Pistons shot just 31-77 (.403) from the field.

This series is full of interesting individual matchups. Howard is the Magic's only legitimate inside player, so he is forced to battle against Detroit's deep frontline of Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Jason Maxiell and Theo Ratliff. Howard's forward tandem of Turkoglu and Lewis are good finesse players who can shoot from the outside, pass and drive but are not known for their inside play. Meanwhile, in the backcourt Detroit has a size and experience advantage with Billups and Hamilton going against Jameer Nelson and Maurice Evans--or, the Pistons had an advantage before Billups got hurt. The Magic rely heavily on making three point shots, while the Pistons' offense is based on ball movement, player movement and feeding the hot hand. Although Detroit shuffles in a lot of different defenders to guard Howard, the Pistons have largely eschewed double teaming him so that they can stay at home on the three point shooters. When the Magic are making their threes--they shot 11-24 from long range in game three after shooting just 13-41 on three pointers in the first two games--they are very tough to beat.

Of course, the biggest three pointer in this series so far is the infamous one that Billups hit at the end of the third quarter of game two after the clock never started on the final possession; videotape review confirmed--and the league office later admitted--that Billups did not get the shot off in time but game officials are not currently allowed to review such plays, so they were forced to consult with each other and guess how much time had elapsed while the clock was not running. They decided to score the goal and place .5 seconds on the clock. As Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy correctly noted, even though the final margin of that game was seven after some late free throws it was a one possession game for most of the fourth quarter so that was a huge play. The NBA simply must change this ridiculous rule and permit its game officials to take advantage of the available technology in such situations.

If Billups cannot play or is hindered by this injury the rest of the way then Orlando supporters will no doubt think that this is karma after Detroit benefited from Billups' shot in game three. The Pistons took 2-0 leads versus Cleveland in the playoffs in 2006 and 2007 before the Cavaliers won the next three games in each of those series; in 2006 the Cavs eventually lost in seven games but in 2007 the Cavs won game six and eliminated the Pistons. In my preview article about this series I suggested that this matchup could follow a pattern similar to the 2006 Detroit-Cleveland series, with Orlando having a chance to win but the Pistons surviving due to their veteran savvy; if Billups is not 100% the rest of the way that could tilt the balance in Orlando's favor, though one suspects that Billups will give it a go in game four. Detroit has the better and deeper team but Orlando--like Cleveland--has an advantage in that Howard is the best individual player on the court. It will be interesting to see if Howard has the ability to control a series against a team like Detroit the way that James did last year. In order for Orlando to match Cleveland's feat and win game four at home and game five on the road Howard will have to have a couple special performances and Turkoglu and Lewis will have to back that up by providing 15-20 points each.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:10 AM

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