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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Boston Bludgeons Detroit in the Paint: The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same

What does Boston's 88-76 victory over Detroit on Sunday tell us? This rematch of the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals was just Allen Iverson's second game as a Piston, so the pundits had a field day focusing on Iverson's performance to the exclusion of everything else. Meanwhile, Antonio McDyess, who played a key role in both of Detroit's wins versus Boston in that series, is not currently on Detroit's roster but will presumably be a Piston again after clearing waivers and waiting the required 30 days to rejoin his old team. McDyess' absence exacerbated Detroit's primary problem versus Boston: the Celtics relentlessly and methodically pound the Pistons to death in the paint.

The Celtics exploited the same advantages on Sunday that they did last year versus the Pistons in both the regular season and the playoffs: rebounding and points in the paint. Those two categories are why I was able to correctly predict Boston's six game victory over Detroit in last year's playoffs; after that series concluded, I did a post summarizing why Boston won and the Celtics' inside dominance was the main factor.

Nothing has changed since that time; on Sunday, Boston enjoyed a 45-38 rebounding edge and a decisive 44-24 lead in points in the paint. Although Rasheed Wallace had 11 rebounds, he all but nullified that production by shooting 4-17 from the field, including 2-8 from three point range. The Pistons spent most of the game firing bricks from outside (.347 field goal percentage), while the Celtics rebounded those misses and shot a significantly higher percentage than Detroit (.446) because of their ability to get into the paint either on the break or in the half court set.

Iverson scored 10 points on 4-11 shooting and added a team-high four assists, though he also had a team-high four turnovers. He showed that he could penetrate Boston's defense off of the dribble and then dish to teammates for open shots but his teammates did not make many of those shots. Before any Pistons' fans wax nostalgic for Chauncey Billups, keep in mind that Billups shot .394 from the field against Boston in last year's playoffs. The Pistons are hoping that Iverson will be able to use his speed and scoring ability to prevent the offensive lulls that have plagued them in their recent playoff runs.

It could be argued that--their great regular season record notwithstanding--the Celtics did not really completely jell last season until they survived tough playoff series versus Atlanta and Cleveland. That is why no one should read too much into Iverson's statistics or Detroit's record for the next few games or even for the next month; it takes time to build chemistry and trust. It is certainly reasonable to expect that Iverson's shot attempts and shooting percentage--and Detroit's winning percentage--will increase once he becomes fully acclimated to his new team.

However, it will be a tall task (no pun intended) for Iverson to have enough impact on offense to compensate for how much Boston's bigs outplay Detroit's bigs on a consistent basis. If Iverson can score 25 ppg versus Boston on .450 field goal shooting and contribute 7 apg with a reasonably low amount of turnovers then Detroit will have a fighting chance in a seven game series--but that level of production (particularly the field goal percentage) will be very difficult for Iverson to maintain against Boston's physical, relentless defense.

That said, there is no reason to think that Detroit would have had a better chance to beat Boston this year with Billups at the helm; once Iverson and his teammates get used to each other, Iverson will give the Pistons a different, more explosive offensive look than they had last year--and in a close playoff game, Iverson's ability to score 15-20 points in the fourth quarter could prove to be the difference that swings a series. The ace in the hole for Joe Dumars is that his team still has an opportunity to contend for the championship but if things don't work out then he can get rid of Iverson and Wallace and use the resulting salary cap room to try to obtain a young superstar. What more can Pistons' fans want than the ability to be a contender this year while retaining the financial flexibility to construct a team that can be a contender for many more years?

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:04 AM

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