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Friday, April 25, 2008

The "Other" Playoff Matchups

I have written in depth game recaps about the Cleveland-Washington, L.A.-Denver and San Antonio-Phoenix series and I touched briefly on how Tracy McGrady performed in the first two games of the Houston-Utah series but there are four other series going on as well. Let's look at what has happened so far in each of those matchups and update the status of the Houston-Utah series:

Eastern Conference

#1 Boston 2, #8 Atlanta 0:

The biggest single reason for the Celtics' remarkable turnaround this year is that the team plays stifling defense now. Kevin Garnett just received the Defensive Player of the Year award in recognition of the huge role he has played in turning Boston into a defensive powerhouse. Boston has held Atlanta to .382 field goal shooting while forcing the Hawks to commit 18.5 turnovers per game. None of the Celtics' Big Three--Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen--is averaging more than 18 ppg or shooting better than .450 from the field in this series but the Celtics are averaging 100 ppg versus the Hawks while giving up just 79 ppg.

#2 Detroit 1, #7 Philadelphia 1:

The team stats are skewed in this series because the 76ers won game one by four points and then got blown out in game two. The Pistons are a veteran team that wants to slow the game down and execute better than their opponents, while the 76ers are a young, athletic team that thrives in the open court. Although the Pistons are clearly superior overall to the 76ers, Magic Johnson rightly pointed out that Philadelphia matches up well with Detroit at certain positions; for instance, Chauncey Billups cannot post up or physically bully Andre Miller the way that he does against smaller guards on other teams.

The 76ers seized homecourt advantage with their surprise win but Detroit will most likely come back and win the series. The Pistons' game one lapse is symptomatic of a larger issue, though; for years the Pistons have been acting like they are entitled to call themselves the best team in the NBA but they have exactly one championship to show for their efforts. Granted, that is one more title than a lot of other teams have but if this era's Pistons only end up with one ring it could be argued that--relative to their talent level and their own expectations--they are one of the most underachieving teams ever.

#3 Orlando 2, #6 Toronto 1:

Most people agree on who the top four MVP candidates are: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett. From what I've seen, though, there is some disagreement about who should finish fifth (and presumably grab the final spot on the All-NBA First Team). My choice is Dwight Howard, the most dominant low post force in the game today. This season he led the league in rebounding (14.2 rpg), ranked third in field goal percentage (.599) and ranked fifth in blocked shots (2.15 bpg). Howard had 25 points, 22 rebounds and five blocked shots in Orlando's game one victory and he followed that up with 29 points, 20 rebounds and three blocked shots as Orlando won game two. On one play in game two, all five Toronto defenders collapsed into the paint when Howard caught the ball; I'm guessing that not too many players in NBA history have faced a quintuple-team. The Raptors won game three in Toronto after holding Howard to 19 points, 12 rebounds, numbers that would still be good for almost any other big man in the league.

Western Conference

#2 New Orleans 2, #7 Dallas 0:

Referring to seedings out West is a little deceptive because the eight playoff teams are only separated by seven games in the standings. I picked the Mavericks to pull off the "upset"--New Orleans won 56 games compared to Dallas' 51 wins--but I also said that I would not be shocked if the Hornets win, with the key issue being who emerges as the dominant player in the series. Right now that has clearly been Chris Paul, who is averaging 33.5 ppg, 13.5 apg and 3.5 spg while shooting .641 from the field. Needless to say, those numbers are insanely good. The Mavericks cannot live with Paul scoring 30-plus points and also getting 13-plus assists. In game two they tried to trap Paul but he repeatedly made them look silly by splitting the traps, after which their whole defense fell apart. I think that the Mavs should try to guard Paul one on one, rotating different players on him the way that Utah tries to wear down Tracy McGrady; the other four defenders should stay at home, which will cut down on Paul's passing opportunities. Make Paul score 40-plus points and don't let his teammates get involved. If Paul gets 40 points but only 5-6 assists then the Mavericks should be able to outscore the Hornets.

# 5 Utah 2, #4 Houston 1:

The rugged Jazz wore down Tracy McGrady in the first two games of this series, throwing multiple defenders at him and winning both games in Houston. The Rockets seemed to be dead in the water but they kept their season alive with a 94-92 win in Utah on Thursday. Last year the Rockets went up 2-0 versus the Jazz only to lose in seven games, so Houston is trying to return the favor but that won't be easy to do with Yao Ming sidelined for the entire playoffs. Houston got a big boost in game three from point guard Rafer Alston, who missed the first two games of the series due to injury. As Kenny Smith said on TNT, having Alston enabled the Rockets to put players in their natural roles: McGrady did not have to do all of the ballhandling and Bobby Jackson once again came off the bench as a scorer. Smith also mentioned that since Houston could not beat Utah last year with Yao it is unreasonable to expect a better result for the Rockets this time around without their All-Star center.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:35 PM



At Friday, April 25, 2008 7:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

boston will sweep hornets in 6 and pistons in 5 and utah in 6 [retty easy second round boston in 6 suns beat hornets in 6 lakers in 6 over utah conference finals lakers in seven over suns. pistons over orlando in 6 boston over psitons in 7 finals lakers over boston in 6.

see i could do the playoff thing for you david it's pretty easy.

At Saturday, April 26, 2008 7:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


At first I thought that you were saying that Boston will sweep the Hornets but now I understand what you mean. Well, if the Pistons are going to win it is going to take at least six now that they lost on Friday.

I think that predicting the series results this year is more difficult than usual and I expected at the start that my winning percentage would not be quite as good as it was in previous seasons, though I still like my Lakers-Celtics Finals pick.

At Saturday, April 26, 2008 5:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

i know the spurs will sweep i like pistons to lose to celtics. but if lebron james could have four game 5 like he did last year against pistons vs celtics then they could beat the celtics isnt happening. lakers celtics will depend on bynum being back because boston is a great defensive team and very deep.

At Sunday, April 27, 2008 3:17:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I totally disagree with the notion that the Pistons could go down as some of the biggest underachievers of all time.

Yeah, they could have had some better finishes in the playoffs the last few years, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect them to have won multiple titles. Consider the fact that the Pistons, along with the 1979 Sonics, are the only team to win a championship in the last 50 years without a legitimate superstar. Only a few other teams (1999 Knicks and 2000 Pacers are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head) have even made it to the finals without a true superstar.

As much as their implosions and overconfidence, their lack of a superstar has cost them in the playoffs. It is what separated the Spurs from them in 2005. Not having a guy who can always get himself or his teammates high quality shots down the stretch is a big handicap in the playoffs.

I feel as if the Pistons are overachievers. What has allowed them to overachieve is the fact that they are one of the few teams in the league whose system and nucleus has remained intact for several years. When they get overconfident and lose games they seemingly shouldn't, I see it as them playing closer to their actual talent level. The fact that they overachieve so much is what allows for the impression that they underachieve in these situations.

At Sunday, April 27, 2008 6:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Under Larry Brown and with Ben Wallace as the defensive anchor the Pistons made it to consecutive NBA Finals, winning one title and losing in game seven the next year. The organization believed that it improved its chances to repeat that level of success by replacing Brown with Saunders and by using B Wall's salary cap space to sign younger and/or cheaper replacements. The one and only goal for this Detroit squad for the past several years has been to win championships. Billups, Hamilton and Sheed are multiple-time All-Stars, Prince is an All-Defensive Team player and McDyess is a former All-Star who is one of the league's top bench players. Billups has finished as high as fifth in MVP voting and Sheed is considered to be one of the league's top talents. It is widely trumpeted that the Pistons have the league's best starting five. Yet this group has not even been back to the Finals since Brown and B Wall left. Relative to the expectation level both inside and outside of Detroit, I consider that to be underachievement.

The Pistons had the best regular season record in the NBA in 2006, they had the best record in the East in 2007 and they had the second best record in the league this season. Do you really believe that they "overachieve" every single year over the course of 82 games? It seems much more accurate to say that they underachieve in the playoffs. As soon as they got rid of Brown and B Wall I said that they would decline in terms of postseason performance and, despite their regular season success, that has proven to be the case.

At Sunday, April 27, 2008 6:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The Pistons have to get past Philly first. I haven't believed in Det. since they got rid of Brown and B Wall but even I didn't think they'd have this much trouble in the first round.

LeBron does not have to have four "game five" performances for the Cavs to beat the Celtics (assuming that the Cavs beat the Wizards, which I expect them to do eventually). LeBron has to do enough for the Cavs to steal game one in Boston and then the Cavs need to win three home games. If the Celts can lose in Atl. then they can certainly lose in Cle.

At Monday, April 28, 2008 2:39:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Perhaps "overachieve" isn't the best way to put it. Basically, I think the Pistons team is greater than the sum of its parts simply because it has been together so long and the players have developed a good chemistry.

The Pistons have several talented players, no question about that. However, none of them is close to being a superstar. (Billups finishing with a high MVP vote doesn't mean he's a superstar. Rasheed may be a "top talent", but it was clear even before he came to Detroit that he'd never fulfill his potential. He is what he is, and his personal underachievement shouldn't factor into the Piston's supposed collective underachievement. In evaluating the Pistons, you can't consider Sheed as what he could be, but rather what he is: a good player but far from a superstar.) As I previously pointed out, having several good players of borderline All-Star caliber but no superstar has very rarely been a recipe to get to the Finals, much less win it all.

Of course the Pistons' front office believes its team has the talent to win a championship and of course that is their main goal. The same can be said of all of the upper-echelon teams in the league.

Over the past two decades it has become common for teams to win championships in bunches of 2 or more. However, many talented teams before then with all-time great players were only able to win one championship. Many teams in recent years with at least as much talent as these Pistons have failed to win even one championship. These include teams built around Hall-of-Fame superstars (Suns, Jazz, Blazers in the 90s) and ensemble casts (2000 Blazers, Kings, Nash-Stoudemire Suns, etc.). The fact that the Pistons have won a championship without a superstar basically disqualifies them from being underachievers in my eyes. Even when they have lost the last few years, they've always lost to good teams led by a superstar. If the Pistons were failing to make the playoffs or getting eliminated by mediocre playoff teams in early rounds, then I'd agree that they are underachievers.

At Monday, April 28, 2008 5:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am not calling the 2004 team an underachieving team. I am talking about what happened since then and what this will mean historically assuming that this core group of Pistons does not win another title before Rip, Chauncey, Sheed and Prince retire, sign with other teams, etc.

The Pistons had an excellent chance to win the 2005 Finals if not for Sheed's brainlock that enabled Horry to drain an open three; that lack of attention to detail is what has typified their postseason exits since the title run. The Pistons parted ways with Brown and B Wall after 2005 and things have gone downhill since then in terms of playoff performance: Detroit has lost in the playoffs to teams with inferior records the past two seasons.

I think that in terms of postseason achievement the Pistons have been less than the sum of their parts. Which NBA team has a better starting unit, on paper, than the Pistons? The other teams you mentioned that never won titles generally lost to great championship teams like the Bulls, Lakers or Spurs.

The Pistons act like they are some kind of NBA royalty and they are often talked about in such terms but their postseason performance since the title run is not worthy of such accolades.

How does this differ from teams like the '67 Sixers, '77 Blazers or '83 Sixers? The '67 Sixers were not kept together as a unit for several years the way that these Pistons have been. The '77 Blazers suffered numerous injuries in subsequent seasons, most notably to Bill Walton. The '83 Sixers, even though Malone was added that year, were at the end of a great run, not the beginning of one, and they shared that era with two other great teams: in the first four years of the decade, Magic won two rings, Bird won one and Dr. J won one.

At Monday, April 28, 2008 7:13:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

You'll get no arguement from me that the Pistons' playoff performance has declined since Brown and Ben Wallace left. They were very important parts of that team. I don't see how this directly relates to the Pistons underachieving. I think their decline has a lot to do with age and the aforementioned departures.

I still don't understand how you account for the Pistons' lack of a superstar in your arguement. As I said before, having a superstar is virtually always necessary to win a championship.

I don't care much for the Pistons' arrogance either, but that's beside the point.

If we are assessing the Pistons and what they have done as a whole, I don't see why we should consider their championships year (where they didn't underachieve) separately from their other years. Does any team that wins a championship at some point underachieve during the years it fails to win it all?

Sure, the Pistons had some mental lapses in the 2005 finals, but other great teams that we wouldn't classify as underachieving go through those moments as well. I think the real reason the Pistons lost that series was that they didn't have a superstar to go to in Game 7 who could create some offense for them. The Spurs had Duncan, who didn't shoot well in that game but was able to generate enough offense to help pull it out. I'm not sure if Larry Brown actively shopping for a new job counts as part of the team's lack of focus or if the coach should be considered separately.

The Pistons had homecourt advantage the last two years, but look at who they lost to: the Heat, featuring Pantheon-level player Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade, who was a superstar at the time. In 2007 they lost to an underrated Cavs team which played very good defense and has a player in LeBron who is far better than anyone on the Pistons and is on course to go down as an all-time great. In 2005, of course, they lost to a great Spurs team.

The 76ers of Dr. J's era lost in 1977, 1978 and 1982 and 1984 to teams with inferior records (not saying they were without question better than those teams, but similarly, I don't think the Pistons have always been better than the teams they've faced with inferior records). In 1983, Moses Malone was 28, Cheeks and Toney were in their mid 20s and a year later they would add future HOFer Barkley. The only player on the team who could expect to be experiencing the end of a great run rather than the beginning was Dr. J, the only player left from the 1977 team. On paper, they had starting fives as good as anyone. Did they underachieve? I don't think so.

At Monday, April 28, 2008 7:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that the Sixers did underachieve in 1984 and Bobby Jones told me that this was one of the biggest disappointments of his career. After that season, though, the Sixers had problems with injuries and aging, whereas the Pistons' key guys are still reasonably young and healthy. The Sixers were not the best team in the NBA in 1984-85 or 1985-86 and before 1986-87 they got rid of Moses. As for the Sixers' earlier playoff losses, in 1977 they lost to a great team whose run was short circuited by injury. From 1980-83, the Sixers made it to three NBA Finals and one ECF, winning one title and on the other occasions losing to the eventual champion each time--and those Celtics and Lakers teams are among the best ever. There are some missed opportunities during Dr. J's Sixers run--1981 and perhaps 1984--but there is more achievement there relative to who they were competing against than there is with these Pistons.

I realize that this is a subjective judgment and that someone else can look at the same facts and disagree. It is just my opinion that the current Pistons--meaning the Billups-Rip-Sheed-Prince nucleus--should have had more Finals appearances and probably one more title. As you indicate, it is rare to keep a core nucleus together so long and that should give them an advantage, particularly in the playoffs.

The reason that I have not focused on their lack of a superstar is that when the Pistons were properly coached and focused they beat a team that had two superstars (2004 Lakers). It is my opinion that the biggest problem for Detroit in the past playoffs--and this year's playoffs so far--is the coaching. A second problem is that they got rid of B Wall when he still had something left and they have not replaced his defensive impact even though they and others swear that they became a better, more complete team by letting him go; if they are better and more complete then why have they lost to inferior teams the past two years and why are they struggling with Philly?

At Tuesday, April 29, 2008 3:38:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I'm not one of those people who thinks the Pistons somehow became better after letting go of Ben Wallace, or by replacing Larry Brown with Flip Saunders. In fact, I think the departure of Wallace and Brown has left the team weakened over the past 2-3 years, which is another reason I don't think they have underachieved. They simply aren't as good as they were in 2004 and 2005. I think anyone who has considered the Pistons as possibly the best team in the league since Ben left has seriously overrated them.

I don't mean to suggest that these Pistons are on par with Dr. J's 76ers (they aren't close IMO). I'm mereley pointing out that many of the same things which kept those Sixers from winning multiple titles can be said for these Pistons. The Sixers usually were eliminated by the eventual champion. The same can be said of the Pistons. The Pistons aren't any younger than the Sixers were when their "decline" began. Remember, Rasheed will be 34 soon and Billups will be 32 (I can even recall agreeing with you that Billups has lost a step the last 2 years or so). With the exception of Dr. J and Bobby Jones, all of the Sixers' key players were in their 20s. The Sixers didn't have the best team in 1985 or 1986, but neither have the Pistons the last few years (the similarity is looking formidable on paper while having experienced a clear decline).

I don't see how it makes any sense to rationalize the Pistons' lack of a superstar by pointing out that they won it all when properly coached and focused. The Pistons won without a superstar, something that has only been done by 2 teams in 50 years. The Pistons winning without a superstar once doesn't change the fact that it's a very difficult thing to do. It's as if rather than recognizing how improbable and noteworthy their title was, we raised the bar after they won and concluded "they did it once, but why can't they do it again?" No team has won multiple titles without a superstar, and somehow the Pistons are underachieving by failing to do what no other team has ever done? It would be underachieving if comparable teams usually accomplished much more than them, but that is clearly not the case.

Why is having a legitimate superstar so important? Down the stretch in close playoff games, you need a guy who can reliably take charge and score himself and get teammates quality shots. The Pistons' offense has been inconsistent in the playoffs over the years and they struggle a lot when nothing seems to be clicking for them at that end of the court. If they had a superstar who could generate some offense to put them over the top in close games where their collective offense is horrible while their defense is keeping them in it, things would be a lot different. Fans like to consider Chauncey Billups that kind of player, but he really isn't (even with the "Mr. Big Shot" nickname).

I agree with all of your comments on the Pistons' decline since Brown and B. Wallace left, and I also think the Pistons are overrated by the press (I agreed with you earlier in the year when people were talking about the Pistons as title contenders while downplaying the Cavs' chances to come out of the East). It looks like we're going to have to disagree about the Pistons underachieving though.

At Tuesday, April 29, 2008 6:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Another way to say what I said that you probably would agree with is that other people expected too much from the Pistons and that the Pistons have failed to meet those inflated expectations. Ever since Brown and B Wall departed I have consistently said that I don't think that the Pistons will win another title but I keep hearing how great the Pistons are and they keep winning a ton of regular season games, so my response to that is if they are really that great then they must be the biggest underachievers ever because they have no titles to show for their efforts since 2004.

I don't consider the post-Brown/B Wall teams to be great but since seemingly everyone else does then the people who make that evaluation have to be consistent and say that the Pistons are underachieving. Does that make sense to you?


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