Eastern Conference finals: Celtics (No. 1 seed) vs. Pistons (No. 2)
Celtics win series: 74%
In 4: 13%
In 5: 25%
In 6: 18%
In 7: 18%
Pistons win series: 26%
In 4: 2%
In 5: 4%
In 6: 11%
In 7: 8%
Before the playoffs, all the talk was about the sexy matchups in the Western Conference bracket. The eight teams in the West were seperated in the standings by seven games from top to bottom. No outcome of any given series in West could really be considered an upset.
Meanwhile, in the East, you had the Celtics playing the lowly Hawks in the first round following a 29-win edge in the regular season. The Pistons had a 19-game lead over the 76ers, their first-round opponent. While the West drew so much attention for its depth, the East was overlooked despite the fact that the top two teams in the league resided there. The Celtics and Pistons boasted the league's best overall won-loss records and had the NBA's best point differentials. A confrontation between the two beasts seemed inevitable. In fact, such a meeting would be the sexiest matchup of the entire playoffs.
Two rounds of the NBA playoffs are in the books and the Boston/Detroit matchup that everyone expected has come to fruition. Still, it's doubtful that many NBA observers view this series the same way that they did before the postseason started. While Detroit breezed through the first two rounds in relative ease after a slow start against Philadelphia, Boston has needed the maximum of 14 games to dispatch Atlanta and the Cleveland Cavaliers, for an underwhelming 8-6 playoff record. The Celtics have already lost six games. Since the ABA/NBA merger, 19 of the 31 champions have won their title with fewer than six playoff losses. The most losses by any champion was nine, by the 2004 Pistons. No team has ever won the title without winning a road game and the Celtics are still searching for their first win away from Boston.
After the Celtics' struggles in the first two rounds, it would appear that Detroit has become the favorite, assuming that Chauncey Billups is healed and ready to go. Is that right? Should we put more weight on what Boston has done over the last 14 games than what it did in the previous 82? We'll get to those questions in a bit. First, a little history.
The last time the Celtics played the Pistons in the playoffs was in the 2002 Eastern Conference semifinals. Boston knocked off Detroit in five games that season, which was the last time the Celtics were in the conference finals and the last time the Pistons weren't. Boston's Paul Pierce is the only player from that series who is still on either of these teams. Stylistically, that series may turn out to be similar to the current series. In 2002, neither team scored more than 90 points in a game and the Celtics won Game Three by an unsightly 66-64 score. Let's hope we don't have any games that ugly this time around.
Overall, the Celtics have won four of the six previous playoff series against the Pistons. The teams have split their two matchups in the East finals. The majority of the playoff history between Boston and Detroit is comprised of the meetings between the Isiah Thomas-led Piston squads of the mid-'80s and early '90s, and the Bird/Parish/McHale teams of the same era. The only time the winner of a matchup between Detroit and Boston has gone on to win the title was in 1968, when Bill Russell won his first championship as a player-coach. That Pistons team was led by Dave Bing, Dave DeBusschere and Jimmy Walker. The full list:
2002 - East semifinals: Boston 4, Detroit 1 (Celtics lost in East finals)
1991 — East semifinals: Detroit 4, Boston 2 (Pistons lost in East finals)
1988 — East finals: Detroit 4, Boston 2 (Pistons lost NBA finals)
1987 — East finals: Boston 4, Detroit 3 (Celtics lost NBA finals)
1985 — East semifinals: Boston 4, Detroit 2 (Celtics lost NBA finals)
1968 — East semifinals: Boston 4, Detroit 2 (Celtics won NBA title)
This year's matchup features teams with many similarities. Both rely on ferocious halfcourt defense and an egalitarian offense that thrives on ball movement. Both teams have deep benches. Both usually get the edge over their opponents in turnover margin. Both teams feature inside-outside balance on offense and do a good job of controlling the boards. Offensively speaking, the Boston big three of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett is comparable to Detroit's Billups, Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace. Defensively, each team features a top-five defender in Boston's Garnett and Detroit's Tayshaun Prince.
There are differences. The Celtics are more apt to push the pace while the Pistons play at the slowest tempo in the league--and are adept and forcing teams to play their slowdown game. The Pistons rely more on midrange jumpers while the Celtics get to the rim--and to the foul line--with greater frequency and shoot more three-pointers. The Pistons were third in the league in blocked shot percentage; the Celtics were third in steal percentage.
Boston coach Doc Rivers is going to have to concoct an offensive scheme that allows Pierce to function despite being smothered by Prince, who has frustrated Philly's Andre Iguodala and Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu into poor showings in the playoffs. When you look at the individual matchups, it's hard to see a mismatch in Boston's favor. The Celtics will have to rely on their defense to force Detroit into missed shots, get quick outlets and try to get clean looks in transition. It's likely that 90 points will win most or all of the games in this series. As such, Boston will have to execute its halfcourt sets and move the ball. Boston can't get bogged down in one-on-one isolations or two-man games, where a couple of guys play pick-and-roll while the other three spread out on the three-point line, because Detroit won't help off of the perimeter shooters. The Celtics averaged just 83.3 points in their three regular-season games against the Pistons. It's likely that they'll struggle for points in this series as well.
The Pistons on offense present more problems for the Celtics but Detroit will also having trouble scoring. The inside-outside capabilities of Detroit's big men, Wallace and Antonio McDyess, means that Kevin Garnett may have to play out on the floor more than he'd like. Normally, Garnett is around to choke off any dribble penetration from the opponent's guards. Since he'll be chasing around Wallace and Kendrick Perkins also has to be wary of McDyess' baseline jumper, the Celtics' middle could be vulnerable. At the same time, Detroit is not a great dribble penetration team. Richard Hamilton represents Detroit's best hope for exploiting a void in the middle in his matchup with Ray Allen. He's capable of doing that but it doesn't play to his strength. Opening up the lane and beating Boston's defenders off the dribble is going to be key for Detroit's hopes of getting the Boston defense moving. If the Pistons can accomplish that, they can use their excellent ball movement to get clean looks on the weak side. Billups has obvious edges in strength and experience in his matchup with Rondo but he'd do well not to underestimate Rondo's ability on defense. Also, look for Prince in the post against Pierce.
On both sides, open looks will be few and far between. The team that knocks down those precious shots will probably win.
Paul Pierce vs. Tayshaun Prince: Pierce has averaged 19.9 points and shot 46.2 percent from the floor against the Pistons over the last three seasons. That means he's had more success against Prince than most. Pierce obviously can't be a stationary shooter against Prince. When he puts the ball on the floor, he's got to do so with the intention of getting all the way to the rim and forcing Detroit's big men to come off their man to help. When that happens, he's got to dish. More than anything, though, Pierce has to be decisive, as he was in Game Seven against Cleveland. Holding the ball out top against Prince and then forcing a jump shot late in the shot clock isn't going to work in this series.
Ray Allen vs. Richard Hamilton: Simply put, if Allen has a series similar to the one he had against Cleveland, Boston will lose this series. Allen is averaging 12.7 points in his 38 minutes per game in the postseason. Hamilton is a fine defender but he's not as good as Prince, Wallace or Billups. This is an area of Detroit's defense that Boston has to exploit. Rivers will need to run more plays for Allen than he did against Cleveland--more screens and more set plays in transition to get him open looks. Most importantly, when Allen gets those open looks, he has to knock them down. In the halfcourt set, Allen has to be willing to take Hamilton off the dribble or else Hamilton will hound him into irrelevance. You could reverse almost all of these statements and they'd apply equally to Hamilton. Based on what's happened in the playoffs, it looks like Detroit has a big edge in this matchup. For Boston to advance, Allen is going to have to re-discover his game.
Kevin Garnett vs. Rasheed Wallace: Wallace attempted 19 three-pointers in the three games against Boston during the regular season. As mentioned, Detroit will try to use Wallace to keep Garnett out of the paint. Garnett will also probably match up some with McDyess, who can also step out and hit from the outside. Either way, Garnett can stifle the production of his opponent, likely Wallace, but Detroit will hope to minimize his effectiveness as a team defender. On the other end, Garnett has had some nice games in his career against Wallace but overall hasn't shot a good percentage against him. He averaged 24 points and shot 54 percent against Detroit this season. That kind of production would go a long way to helping Boston advance.
The benches: Detroit has been less reliant on its bench in the playoffs than it was during the regular season. This would have been even more true if Rodney Stuckey hadn't been forced into extended duty because of Billups' bum hamstring. Stuckey and Jason Maxiell will be the primary bench contributors. For Boston, Rivers hasn't settled into an ironclad rotation in the postseason. Eddie House or Sam Cassell? Glen Davis or Leon Powe? In any event, Rivers' has relied on all of these players, plus James Posey and P.J. Brown, with various degrees of success. At some point, he's going to have to dust off Cassell to see if he's rediscovered his midrange jumper. You get a sense that Cassell will play a big role at some point. It's just not like him to stay in the background.
The deeper we get into the playoffs, the more likely we are to see some of the Celtics' hiccups cured. Allen will eventually get his shot going. Their road performance will become more indicative of a team that won 31 games away from home during the season. Despite everything, the Celtics still have the third-best point differential of all playoff teams. Alas, Detroit has the best.
We pretty much know what we're going to get from Detroit. After two seven-game epics, we're not so sure about the Celtics. I, for one, opt to look at the larger body of work. Tonight's opener is huge for the Pistons. The Celtics have barely had time to catch their breath after finally eliminating LeBron James and the Cavaliers. The Pistons are rested but will they look rusty in trying to find their shots in a hostile environment? If Detroit can't steal Game One, it's hard to see them winning a game in Boston. The home advantage is the Celtics' trump card. Celtics in seven.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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