Pistons 100, 76ers 77
The central reason for using meaningful and properly-contextualized statistics to augment the analysis of sports is that it helps you to differentiate the forest from the trees.
I've noticed that when breaking down the first-round games in the East, I quickly become bogged down in the same kind of minutiae that I imagine the coaches of the respective teams have to sort through. You poke through the action, identifying the symptoms for each win or loss, and think of ways to cure those symptoms. In effect, you start to see the action through the eyes of the coach. With each passing game between the Sixers and Pistons, I could feel myself becoming fixated about what Mo Cheeks could do to pull off the upset. Push the tempo. Play the younger guys. Take the ball to the basket. In my mind, if the Sixers could have successfully accomplished those things, the series could have been even more competitive than it was. An upset was a real possibility.
Of course, it's not as easy as that. Push the tempo? Easy to say, but no team in the NBA does a better job of controlling game pace than the Pistons. Take the ball to the basket? Detroit is one of the most disciplined defensive squads in the league over the last five years. There's more, but you get the picture. The Pistons are just a much better team than the Sixers. Coming into the series, the log5 method told me that Detroit stood a 93 percent chance of winning the series. While the most likely scenario (67 percent) was that the Pistons would win in four or five games, that still means that there was a 1/3 chance that the series would go six or more games. So it's not shocking that the series went as long as it did.
At one point in the series, at halftime of Game Four, with Philly leading two games to one and ahead by 10 points, the trees really seemed to be the story. But the forest is pretty overwhelming, particularly a forest with a density of 93 percent. For all of our strategizing vicariously through Cheeks' perspective, the fact of the matter is it never really felt like the Pistons were going to be upset. Such is the reality of the NBA playoffs. That's why despite all the excellent games and hard-fought battles we've already seen, all five teams that have advanced so far were the higher seed in their series. There's a real possibility that the higher seeds will go eight-for-eight by the time the weekend is through.
As for Game Six in the Detroit/Philadelphia series, it was almost literally over from the opening tap. Actually, just after the tap. Philly won the toss. It was all downhill from there. Jason Maxiell and Chauncey Billups jumped out to trap Andre Miller along the sideline. Miller threw a pass that was picked off by Richard Hamilton, who drove, scored and was fouled. Like that, it was 3-0 and for all intents and purposes, the game was over. Philly never led. The Sixers turned the ball over on their first three possessions. Detroit scored the first 10 points of the game, led 18-5, 28-9, 32-12 and eventually pushed its lead out to 32 points. From the aforementioned Game Four halftime, the Pistons completely dominated the series.
During the matchup, we discussed the few advantages that Philadelphia had, namely youth and athleticism. The Sixers' team strength is forcing turnovers. Detroit is the league's best team at taking care of the ball, but Philadelphia still managed to get plenty of takeaways. When they did, they got out on the break. Still, the Pistons still managed to keep the tempo slow. Despite 16 Detroit turnovers in Game Six and 11 Sixer steals, there were just 81 possessions in the game.
The Sixers averaged 8.8 steals per game in the series had a +1.8 turnover margin. The teams were virtually even on the boards. Philadelphia averaged 11 more free-throw attempts per game. Yet the Pistons won going away, with a comfortable 7.0 margin of victory. Why? Shooting.
Yep, it's as simple as that. There are a lot of columns in a box score and they all tell a part of the story. But the protagonist in the tale of any basketball game is shooting: How successful each team was at putting the ball through the hoop. The Sixers lack shooters; to make up for that, they needed to play hellacious halfcourt defense, crash the offensive boards and force turnovers. They did a reasonably good job on the latter of these two tasks, but the Pistons picked them apart in the halfcourt. Detroit posted a .523 eFG% in the six games, including a .649 mark in the series clincher.
Still, the Pistons' overall offensive efficiency was 110.0, which was 3.5 points below their season average. The Sixers did a reasonably good job defensively, but they just couldn't score enough, finishing with an efficiency of 101.7, almost seven points below their regular season mark. Their eFG% for the series was .430, including a .348 showing from leading scorer Andre Iguodala. Andre Miller was a little better than that (.438) but shot 4-of-16 in the last game.
So the Sixers move ahead into the summer with some postseason experiences on which to build and some cap dollars ready to spend. An upgrade at the two-guard, preferably a guy who can light it up from the outside, could allow the Sixers to make a quantum leap in the coming season. For that to happen, they'll need to make good use of their first-round draft choice, which will be the 16th overall pick. This should be a pretty decent draft and Philly could add a shooter like West Virginia's Joe Alexander at that spot. The free-agent market, while deep overall, doesn't look to have a lot of pure shooters out there as unrestricted free agents. You never know who could pop up on the restricted market. (Gilbert Arenas, anyone?) Most importantly, Ed Stefanski will have to come to an accord with Iguodala, who can become a restricted free agent.
As for the Pistons, it's onward and upward. After facing a team that does most everything well but shoot, Detroit faces a whole new challenge. Its second-round opponent, Orlando, is the best shooting team in the league.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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