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April 21, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Sunday's Action

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton

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Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton will be covering the NBA playoffs every day for Basketball Prospectus, with Doolittle tracking the East and Pelton the West.

Sunday's games weren't quite as compelling as the day before, with Orlando, Boston and the L.A. Lakers all cruising to relatively easy Game One victories. But there was a barnburner in Michigan, producing the first shocking result of the 2008 NBA postseason.

76ers 90, Pistons 86

The script played out for about two-and-a-half quarters, anyway. The Pistons took a 13-point halftime lead, stifling the Sixers' scorers. The offensive leaders for Philly, point guard Andre Miller and small forward Andre Iguodala, were struggling to get good looks. This was neither surprising nor unusual, as both typically struggle when they cross swords with Piston counterparts Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince, respectively.

Philadelphia made a run to begin the second half, as Willie Green turned a steal into a dunk and then scored a couple of plays later on the heels of a fast break sparked by a Samuel Dalembert blocked shot. The Pistons' lead was down to five.

Any hopes for a competitive finish seemed to dissipate after Detroit tightened the screws on defense, holding the Sixers scoreless for nearly four minutes, eventually stretching out to a 62-47 advantage. Rasheed Wallace was enjoying a big game for the Pistons, scoring 24 points, grabbing nine boards and tying a franchise playoff record by blocking seven shots. He sparked the Piston run by showing the full range of his considerable ability, hitting two free throws after getting fouled on a post-up, assisting on Billups' layup after grabbing an offensive rebound and capping a 9-0 run with a three-pointer.

Game, set and match right? After all, this was a two-versus-seven game between a playoff-tested, 59-win team and a squad that backed into the playoffs with a sub-.500 record.

Apparently, someone forgot to tell the Sixers it was over.

Green hit another layup, Prince missed a jumper from the left elbow and Miller hit a jumper on the other end. Lead down to 11. Antonio McDyess threw away a pass and Green scored again on a jumper. McDyess missed a layup; Iguodala buried one from midrange. Wallace was called for an offensive foul; Iguodala converted two free throws. Voila, it was a five-point game. From there, the teams went toe-to-toe until the end of the game.

I sketch out this play by play to illustrate how fast things can turn around in the NBA if a team drops its level of intensity even for a minute. The 10-point run I just described took about two-and-a-half minutes of court time. There was no substitution that sparked the run. Both teams were going primarily with their regulars during the stretch. The Pistons just let up.

Later, Detroit failed to execute during the last five minutes of the game, which is the polar opposite of what we've come to expect from this group. It's not too much of a stretch to call this a choke job on Detroit's part, as Billups missed three free throws and a layup, Hamilton missed another free throw and several open looks from midrange, and Wallace missed a short turnaround bank shot as well as a crucial layup with the Pistons down 88-86 and less than 12 seconds left in the game.

One thing that surprised (i.e., irked) me was how Flip Saunders deployed his bench. I understand that rotations get shortened in the playoffs, but let's not forget that the main reason that Detroit, an elite but aging team, won six more games than it did last season is because of its improved bench, a group upgraded through the maturation of young players like Rodney Stuckey, Amir Johnson and Aaron Afflalo. On Sunday, Saunders played ancient Theo Ratliff for six minutes over Johnson for a key stretch in the second half in which Detroit was outscored by six points. He also played Lindsay Hunter for 12 wasted minutes. Look, I know Hunter is a "solid veteran," but he's 37 years old. He played side by side with Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer. Heck, he may have been Dave Bing's backup at one point.

Message: Play Stuckey. Three guards are plenty this time of the year and the rookie from Eastern Washington has emerged as a terrific young combo guard.

One surprising development from the Sixers' standpoint was a fantastic game by Reggie Evans. The scoreless wonder poured in 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting and grabbed 14 rebounds. He scored on putbacks, on a layup rolling to the hoop off a pick-and-roll and even swished a turnaround 17-footer to beat the shot clock. That's when you know things are going your way. Evans played 32 minutes, getting the call in crunch time over rookie Thaddeus Young, who scored 10 points but was not used by Mo Cheeks down the stretch.

This was a pretty lackadaisical effort from Detroit, one that you wouldn't expect to see repeated. The Pistons could go on to sweep the next four games but, for the moment, it's Philadelphia with the upper hand--and homecourt advantage--in the series.

Magic 114, Raptors 100

We've touched upon the disparity in opposing eFG% between these teams. That advantage in Orlando's favor manifested itself right off the bat. Orlando stormed out of the gates like Jose Canseco towards a mirror, burying Toronto with a 43-point first quarter and hitting nine three-pointers along the way.

That was pretty much the story. The Raptors cut the lead down to single digits at one point, but the outcome was never really in doubt. By my figures, the Magic posted an offensive efficiency of 135 points per 100 possessions and scorched the nets to the tune of a 61.7 eFG%. The Raptors can shoot the lights out as well; they hit 27 of 28 from the line and went 9-for-20 from beyond the arc, but Toronto shot just 35.3 percent on two-point shots.

You can attribute that last figure to the presence of one Dwight David Howard, who had 25 points, 22 rebounds and five blocks in the game. The big three of Orlando--Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu--posted +/- figures of +21, +19 and +19 respectively.

Toronto simply has to do a better job of defending the perimeter. That's easier said than done, of course, being that the Magic are the best outside shooting team in the league. But one thing Sam Mitchell might want to consider is using his best defender, Jamario Moon, for more than five minutes.

Celtics 104, Hawks 81

Frankly, this one was kind of a yawn. The lidlifter between the Celtics and Hawks gave every indication that the series will be as lopsided as you'd expect a match between a 66-win juggernaut and a 37-win team playing in its first postseason series since 1999 to be.

The Celtics, who limited opponents to a league best 45.7 eFG%, stifled the Hawks, who shot 38 percent (29-for-76) from the floor. Meanwhile, the Celtics executed on offense, hit 9-of-16 from beyond the arc and ended up with a +5 turnover margin. Doc Rivers tightened his rotation as Eddie House and Big Baby Davis, two key components of Boston's terrific bench, received only token playing time. If these games continue to be as one-sided as you'd anticipate, Rivers will have take care to keep his reserves involved. You never know when they might be needed.

The bright spot for Atlanta, besides the fact that they were playing a playoff game at all, was rookie Al Horford's double-double, 20 points and 10 boards. Horford outplayed the Celtics' Kendrick Perkins and, in the middle at least, it looks like the Hawks have the advantage.

That's not nearly enough, of course, and all signs still point towards a Boston sweep.

--B.D.

Lakers 128, Nuggets 114

The defining moment in Game One between the Lakers and the Nuggets came with 5:11 left to play in the third quarter. Lakers coach Phil Jackson removed Kobe Bryant, playing with four fouls, for the final five-plus minutes of the period. (At the same time, starting point guard Derek Fisher also left with four fouls.) Following Allen Iverson's second free throw, Denver trailed 78-67--an 11-point margin that easily could have been sliced to something manageable going to the fourth quarter.

Instead, with their star player on the bench, the Lakers finished the third quarter with a 19-11 surge capped by Jordan Farmar's buzzer-beating three-pointer. The Lakers boosted their lead to 19 going to the fourth. While the Nuggets were able to rally within 10 early in the quarter and weren't entirely finished until Iverson was, picking up two technical fouls with 2:10 left to play, the deficit proved too much to overcome.

That the Lakers didn't miss Bryant, who was only a +3 in a game the Lakers won by 14 points, has something to do with the development of Farmar and Sasha Vujacic as part of a capable second unit. However, it was much more about the performance of Pau Gasol, who had eight points in the five-minute stretch without Bryant, keeping the Lakers offense running smoothly. Gasol contributed plenty when he was playing alongside Bryant, scoring 36 points on 14-of-20 shooting, grabbing 16 rebounds and handing out eight assists in a game that showcased every reason the Lakers were so happy to acquire him from Memphis before the All-Star break.

From Denver's perspective, the lingering questions from Game One center on Marcus Camby's dismal night. The Nuggets were outscored by 30 points in Camby's 30 minutes of action, and he didn't do much in the box score either, finishing with as many turnovers as points (four apiece) and just seven rebounds and two blocks--not what Denver expects or needs from the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. In fairness, Camby has a tough chore stepping up to provide help against the pass-happy Lakers and needs help from his teammates rotating behind him, but he can certainly be more active.

--K.P.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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