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Monday, March 02, 2009

Rejuvenated Pistons Beat Celtics

Detroit's 105-95 victory at Boston was rich in subplots. The Celtics were without the services of Kevin Garnett for the fourth game in a row and the seventh time this season; this is the first time that they lost sans "The Big Ticket" in 2008-09 and they were 9-2 without him last season: the fact that they have gone 15-3 without Garnett during the past two seasons indicates just how talented the Celtics really are and how committed they are to playing solid defense even without their best defensive player.

The Pistons were also playing without a former league MVP: Allen Iverson missed his second consecutive game and the once floundering Pistons have now won two in a row on the road against two of the three best teams in the East (they beat Orlando on Friday). This season has been heaven on Earth for anyone who dislikes Iverson and/or wants to "prove" that Iverson is overrated. The Pistons have been in disarray all season long, so the simple minded look at the trade that sent Iverson to Detroit for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess and conclude that Detroit's problems are all because of Iverson. Part of the problem is that these people do not even describe the trade correctly, let alone understand its impact; note that Iverson was swapped not straight up for Billups but also for McDyess. The Nuggets released McDyess but by league rule the Pistons had to wait a month to re-sign him and they went 9-8 while McDyess--their leading rebounder last season and again this season--was out of action.

In 2007-08, the Pistons went 59-23 using nine different starting lineups--but their main starting lineup (which included McDyess) went 46-17; this season, the Pistons have already used 12 different starting lineups, with no single grouping playing together for more than 13 games. The Pistons also fired Coach Flip Saunders in the offseason and replaced him with Michael Curry, who had never been a head coach in the NBA.

Any objective person with a reasonable amount of intelligence can look at the information in the preceding two paragraphs and understand that there are a variety of reasons that the Pistons are not as good as they were last year--but that has not stopped less objective/intelligent people from declaring that Iverson is the main villain in the Detroit drama.

Early in the game, ABC's Hubie Brown, perhaps the best NBA color commentator, offered this trenchant analysis of the Pistons' season, completely refuting the people who foolishly try to blame Iverson alone for all of the Pistons' woes:

Everything in basketball comes down to chemistry. This team--whether you say it's the lack of Chauncey Billups to take the big shots at the end of games and make the big free throws and three point plays--whatever the problem is, it is a team problem. It's not just Allen Iverson and it's not just Rip Hamilton. Let's look at the lack of production by the frontcourt people. They tried the young players here and it didn't work out. Now they have McDyess back in the lineup. But let's look at Rasheed Wallace; his numbers are down. Whatever the problem is, the offensive creativity by the coaching staff is not there. You can't be one of the best (point) differential teams in this league and win 59 games and then all of a sudden this year you're 29th in scoring and you have a minus (point) differential. There is more to this than just one player.

Also, during the Lakers-Suns telecast, Jeff Van Gundy completely rejected the notion that Iverson is solely to blame for Detroit's poor record and he sounded a cautionary note about the supposed culture change in Denver:

There have been a lot of changes there (in Detroit). There have been coaching changes and changes in rotations. Who is to blame for putting Rip Hamilton on the bench if he's better as a starter? That's not Allen Iverson's decision. That's a coaching decision.

Let's wait to coronate the Nuggets until they do something in the playoffs. They've had good seasons in the past and they've lost in the first round. To me, this idea of bashing Allen Iverson is way out of bounds, as if he is singularly the reason that the Pistons have struggled.


Shifting our focus to players who actually played in the game, Richard Hamilton was the best player on the court. As Van Gundy mentioned, Coach Curry had recently turned Hamiliton into a sixth man and the Pistons only went 4-12 with Hamilton coming off of the bench. Curry is apparently determined to keep starting Rodney Stuckey no matter how badly Stuckey plays--he was solid against Boston but played poorly in the 16 game slide--but with Iverson out of action Hamilton returned to the starting lineup and produced 25 points, a game-high nine assists and six rebounds. All five Detroit starters scored in double figures. Paul Pierce led Boston with 26 points on 11-20 shooting but Ray Allen (10 points on 2-10 shooting) and Rajon Rondo (eight points on 2-7 shooting) were MIA.

Stephon Marbury made his second appearance in a Boston uniform, finishing with 0 points on 0-3 shooting, three assists, two turnovers and four personal fouls in 12 minutes. He had a plus/minus number of +6 after posting a -7 plus/minus number in 13 minutes in Boston's 104-99 win over Indiana on Friday night. Let's take a closer look at Marbury's performance versus Detroit:

Marbury first entered the game at the start of the second quarter, with Boston leading 22-20. On his first possession, Hamilton shot a jumper right in Marbury's eye. The Celtics inbounded the ball to Marbury, but Will Bynum picked his pocket and cruised in for a layup. On the next possession, Marbury got an assist by feeding a cutting Pierce for a layup.

Marbury got his first foul trying to chase Hamilton around a screen. Then, less than two minutes after Bynum stripped Marbury one on one in the backcourt, Bynum stole the ball from him again. This time, Marbury fouled him and Bynum split a pair of free throws.

Marbury fed Powe for a layup/three point play to tie the score at 29. Later, Marbury took a low percentage, fadeaway jumper with plenty of time on the shot clock but Powe bailed him out by rebounding the miss and converting the putback.

Marbury struggled on defense no matter who he was assigned to guard, leading to open shots for a variety of Pistons and a high foul total for such limited minutes. The Pistons repeatedly isolated seldom used reserve Walter Herrmann on Marbury, leading to two easy baskets plus a foul by Mikki Moore when Moore came over to double team Herrmann. Herrmann made both of the resulting free throws, so when Marbury went back to the bench the Celtics trailed 39-37. He had made a couple decent passes but they were both plays that other guards on the roster could also have converted; meanwhile, Marbury missed both of his field goal attempts, committed two backcourt turnovers that led to three easy points and he was a defensive sieve. All of that added up to a -4 plus/minus number for Marbury in the first half. The Pistons expanded their lead to 55-47 by halftime.

The Celtics used suffocating defense to open the third quarter with a 12-0 run but the Pistons battled back to take a 77-70 lead by the time Marbury checked back in with just :25.7 remaining in the third quarter. The final possession of the quarter was an isolation play for Pierce, who was not able to score.

Marbury stayed in the game to start the fourth quarter but the Celtics made a significant adjustment; Eddie House handled the ball instead of Marbury, who simply spotted up in the corner. While that -4 plus/minus number is a pretty accurate indicator of Marbury's second quarter "contributions," his +6 plus/minus number in the fourth quarter is very deceptive. Marbury was involved in many plays in the second quarter and most of them were negative: as noted above, he lost the ball twice, took a bad shot and was ineffective defensively. On the other hand, he was largely an on court bystander when the Celtics rallied early in the fourth quarter. House not only took care of the ballhandling responsibilities but he drained two big three pointers as the Celtics used an 11-2 run to take an 81-79 lead. The Celtics were up 87-84 when Marbury went back to the bench for good with 6:03 remaining; in the fourth quarter he shot 0-1, had one assist and committed two fouls. Pierce and House did most of the heavy lifting, while Marbury was not involved in the offensive action and continued to struggle to keep up defensively.

I understand that Marbury may be rusty after having so much time off--but there is a good reason why he has been inactive all season: he has proven on many occasions to be such a bad teammate that the Knicks decided that they were better off paying him not to play even though he is a more talented athlete than any of their point guards. That says a lot. The Marbury-House backcourt pairing is odd; both are shoot first players but House is a much better shooter, someone who should be paired with a player who is willing and able to distribute the ball. If the Celtics are simply going to have House or Pierce handle the ball when Marbury is in the game--as they did in the fourth quarter--then what is the point of having Marbury out there at all when he is clearly a defensive liability? The Celtics are shorthanded for the moment because Garnett and reserve guard Tony Allen are sidelined but whose minutes is Marbury going to take when the Celtics are once again at full strength? Marbury's offensive contributions will probably increase as he gets acclimated to his new team but he is highly unlikely to improve much defensively. Since he is in a contract year, Marbury may very well exercise enough good judgment to not be a negative presence in the locker room--but that does not mean that he will actually make a positive on court contribution.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:51 AM

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