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Friday, November 02, 2007

King for a Day: Tayshaun Prince Leads Detroit to a Victory Over Miami

Tayshaun Prince set his career-high in scoring (34 points) and tied his career-high in rebounds (12) as the Detroit Pistons beat the Miami Heat, 91-80. Both teams played without their All-Star shooting guards: Miami's Dwyane Wade is still at least a couple weeks away from being cleared to play after his offseason surgeries, while Detroit's Richard Hamilton missed the game due to a family emergency. Hamilton's absence placed an added burden on Prince and he proved to be more than equal to the task. Chauncey Billups contributed 19 points and 11 assists but shot just 5-14 from the field. Rasheed Wallace (11 points on 4-13 shooting, eight rebounds) and Antonio McDyess (four points, four rebounds) did not contribute much, so Pistons fans should not treat this win as anything other than a victory over a team that is going to have to fight to get the eighth playoff spot; the jury is still out on how good Detroit really is this year and I suspect that those who place the Pistons among the three best teams in the East are overrating Detroit's playoff prospects. Ricky Davis led Miami with 23 points on 10-19 shooting; the athletic swingman is the main legitimate scoring option that the team has at the moment but his numbers are like cotton candy--nice on the surface but devoid of substance. Davis can easily average 18 ppg this season and thrill Heat fans by putting up 30 or 40 points in some games but he is a subpar performer in most other aspects of the game (three rebounds, no assists versus Detroit). It will be interesting to see how Davis reacts to having his minutes and shot attempts reduced when Wade returns. Shaquille O'Neal was the "Big Zero" in the first half, scoring no points on 0-1 shooting; he finished with nine points on 4-6 shooting, seven rebounds, two assists, no blocked shots and four turnovers. Udonis Haslem had 14 points and 10 rebounds and Jason Williams added 11 points and nine assists.

Miami took an early 10-4 lead, largely on the strength of Jason Williams breaking down Detroit's defense; he made a three pointer and had two assists during that stretch and he finished the quarter with six points and four assists. Detroit's defensive strategy regarding O'Neal quickly became apparent--double-team him and force other Miami players to make jump shots. O'Neal's first shot attempt was blocked by Wallace. O'Neal's post moves look labored and slow and he is not generating much lift or explosiveness. Double-teaming him is a good strategy as long as Miami continues to brick jumpers but if the Heat start connecting from outside it will be very interesting to see what O'Neal can still do against one-on-one coverage. It could very well be that he has slowed down to the extent that at least some teams can get away with not even bothering to double-team him, something that would have been unthinkable in previous years. By the end of the first quarter, Detroit led 26-22 and the Pistons would never trail again (Miami did manage to tie the score once).

O'Neal committed his third foul at the 6:30 mark of the second quarter, bowling over a hapless defender--something that, as TNT's Reggie Miller mentioned, used to be a trademark move for O'Neal and that used to be considered either a no-call or a blocking foul. Coach Pat Riley elected to sit O'Neal down for the remainder of the half. Miami trailed 35-29 at that point and the Heat did not lose any ground by halftime as Detroit enjoyed a 48-42 lead.

O'Neal's charging foul provides a good segue to an issue that has been discussed recently in the comments section to this post at Best Ever Sports Talk: how important is a player's turnover rate in determining his overall value? Although an offensive foul is recorded as a turnover, the other team still has to score against a set defense. On the other hand, if a player throws the ball away or gets stripped then the other team may have an opportunity to score quickly in transition; for example, after O'Neal was stripped of the ball at the 7:33 mark in the third quarter the Pistons scored a fast break layup within five seconds. This is why team turnovers may be an important statistic but individual turnovers must be considered in the context of a player's role (his overall production and how much he handles the basketball) and also in the context of what kind of miscues he committed. For instance, even though Steve Nash has one of the highest turnover rates in the league he is not really hurting the Suns because the team's overall turnover rate is better than the league average; he has the ball in his hands the vast majority of the time--which by necessity limits his teammates' turnovers and leaves most of the ballhandling responsibilities in his capable hands--and when he gives it up then his teammates usually shoot without dribbling much. That means that they are less apt to turn the ball over; he keeps the ball, makes the decisions and therefore the seemingly large number of turnovers that he commits are more than acceptable in light of his total production.

Detroit briefly took an eight point lead in the third quarter but Smush Parker's layup at the 1:13 mark tied the score at 62. The Pistons then reeled off 12 straight points in the next six minutes to take control of the game. Parker made several poor plays during this stretch, forcing shots and turning the ball over when he committed an offensive foul after making an ill advised behind the back dribbling maneuver, leading TNT's Mike Fratello to say, "Pat Riley sees that they're not getting into anything (offensively). The ball is not getting into spots on the floor where they can attack and score. So he has to put Jason Williams back in." Riley did just that, but he left Parker in, electing to remove Davis, who he then put back in a minute later to replace Dorell Wright; Riley does not really have a wealth of options until Wade returns--Penny Hardaway was scoreless in eight minutes of action in his first regular season game in two years. Once Detroit built the double digit fourth quarter lead Miami never again got closer than nine points.

This year, the NBA is including plus/minus statistics in the box score for the first time. This measure, borrowed from hockey, simply shows a team's point differential during the minutes that each player was in the game. Plus/minus statistics can be "noisy" (imprecise) due to factors such as a small sample size of minutes, not accounting for which other players were on the court during the minutes in question (i.e., some players mainly compete against bench players, not starters) and not distinguishing between different phases of the game (such as meaningless garbage time production versus what a player does down the stretch in a close game). On the other hand, they can offer an interesting "quick and dirty" look at which players had the biggest impact--or at least which players were on the court during the biggest scoring runs. Miami's two big offseason acquisitions were Ricky Davis and Smush Parker. Although Davis led the Heat in scoring, they were outscored by 13 points when he was in the game. Parker's conventional numbers were terrible (seven points, 3-9 shooting, three rebounds, two assists, one steal in 26 minutes), and even a casual, uninformed fan watching the game could tell that he made several bad plays, so it is not surprising that he had the worst plus/minus total (-19) by far of any player on either team. This is actually pretty representative of how he played toward the end of his time with the Lakers, which is why I wrote in my Eastern Conference Preview that if Parker plays significant minutes he will cost the Heat five wins.

Let me stress again that one cannot get too carried away over unadjusted plus/minus data--let alone unadjusted plus/minus data from just one game--but if you combine that data with actually watching the game then you can begin to get some understanding. As TNT's broadcasting trio of Fratello, Miller and Marv Albert mentioned more than once, Davis seems to think that the entire Heat offense is simply built around him catching the ball and shooting it. O'Neal, for one, has already voiced his dissent: "We took a lot of jump shots, way too many jump shots. I'd like more than six shots if we're going to win, especially until Dwyane comes back."

Why do I expect Cleveland to bounce back from a horrible opening night performance but blithely dismiss Detroit's win and take such a negative view of Miami's prospects? The first thing that must be noted is that these were just the opening games of the season for all three squads, so it is too soon to make grand pronouncements about anything; I'm just relaying what I saw and trying to project what it most likely will mean down the line. Cleveland's nucleus is young (other than Ilgauskas) and displayed a commitment to defense throughout last season. Also, Cleveland's best player, LeBron James is young and healthy. Miami's commitment to defense is tenuous at best, their young superstar is not healthy and their other superstar is old and, realistically, is not a legitimate superstar at this stage of his career; the Heat should be a lot better once Wade makes a healthy return but there is a limit to what can reasonably be expected from this roster. Detroit's nucleus is aging and is not always on the same page with Coach Flip Saunders. The Pistons' performance level has gone done in recent postseasons, not up. Just based on talent and muscle memory alone the Pistons will easily post a solid regular season record but to call this a top three team in the East seems to be a bit of a stretch. Think about this logically: the "experts" keep saying that Cleveland is horrible and did not improve in the offseason--yet that horrible team beat Detroit in four straight playoff games last summer. Why should we believe right now that Detroit is a top three team in the East? Frankly, even if the Pistons post that kind of regular season record it would still be legitimate to wonder if Saunders can navigate them safely through the early rounds of the playoffs and all the way to the NBA Finals, something that he has yet to accomplish even once.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM



At Friday, November 02, 2007 7:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's rather funny too see you go out of your way to defend Cleveland's embarrassing loss, and at the same time see nothing but trouble for the Pistons.

Not even considering that Prince might actually be that good.

The Cavs are not deep enough to mount a serious challenge for a to 4 spot in the East.

At Friday, November 02, 2007 8:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I did not defend Cleveland's loss; the Cavs looked terrible. I merely suggested that one loss to a team that won 67 games last year and made it to the Finals the year before may not prove that the apocalypse is near for the Cavs.

On the other hand, Detroit beat a ragged Miami team that will struggle to get the last playoff berth. Sheed and McDyess did not look great even going against a Shaq who appears to be a fraction of his old self. Maybe Detroit is better than I think but this game neither proved (nor disproved) that.

Detroit has not re-signed its starting center and no one knows how much the rookies will contribute, so why does everyone assume that the Pistons will be better than a Cavs team that beat them four straight times in the playoffs? Assuming that the Cavs get Varejao back in the fold they will have the same team that beat Detroit plus Devin Brown and Cedric Simmons. All I'm saying is that anyone who thinks that the Cavs are going to drop off should also think the same thing about Detroit.


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