Pistons 103, Celtics 97
The Pistonsí six-year run as an Eastern Conference finalist has largely been attributed to their prowess on the defensive end of the floor. Itís true that Detroit has been a stingy team, finishing in the top five in defensive efficiency in each of those seasons, including this one.
At the same time, many miss the boat about Detroitís offense. In the three seasons since Ben Wallace left town as a free agent, the Pistons have also finished in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. This season, Detroitís 104.9 points per 100 possessions ranked eighth in the league. Among the NBAís final four, only the Lakers ranked higher. Yet the misconception persists of the Pistons as a defensive team that struggles to score points. The slow, often tedious, pace that Detroit prefers is the primary culprit for the chronic underestimating of the Pistonsí offensive capabilities. Another probable cause is the lack of a big-time scorer.
Defense is not what defines the Pistons these days and it hasnít been since Big Ben stopped tolling in Motown. The defining characteristic of the Pistons is balance. Five players, the will to help each other and to sacrifice personal numbers for the greater good. The starters all have multi-dimensional offensive games. While none of them can take over and dominate a contest by creating his own offense, the quintet complements each other in a way that allows them to exploit any weakness in the oppositionís defense. Detroit walks the ball up the floor, with Chauncey Billups patiently dribbling out top while the Pistons run a series of screens away from the ball, trying to create defensive switches.
When mismatches are created, each of the Piston starters can exploit it. If Rasheed Wallace has a slow-footed big man on him, heíll drift out to the top to set a high pick-and-pop, which plays to his strength as one of the better-shooting big men in the game. If Tayshaun Prince is matched against a shorter player, boom, he sets up on the block and the ball rotates his way. If the defense gets caught up in all of the screening and switching and leaves an open lane, Billups can get the ball to the hoop. Antonio McDyess can step out and hit the jumper but also flies to the offensive glass when the shot goes up. Rip Hamilton keeps moving, always ready for to catch and shoot one of the deadliest midrange jumpers in the NBA. The Pistons donít draw a great number of fouls nor are they a great three-point shooting team. They just execute that halfcourt set over and over and over, always working for that one open look that each of their outstanding midrange shooters can drill.
The Pistonsí cold-blooded precision was on full display Thursday night, as Detroit evened its series with the Celtics by handing Boston its first home loss of the postseason.
The first half was really more about the Detroit defense. There was nothing special in what the Pistons were doing, no special sets or unusual defensive assignments. The Pistons were just playing aggressive man-to-man, fighting through screens and disrupting the Celticsí passing lanes. Boston shot 39 percent during the first half and had only five assists while committing 10 turnovers. Boston was able to stay close was thanks to a 22-12 edge on the boards.
In the first few minutes of the game, the Celtics were able to push the tempo and get early offense. By the middle of the first quarter, however, the Pistons had seized control of the pace. Meanwhile, Detroit shot 52 percent in the first half and outscored Boston 32-23 in the second quarter. The Celtics had no continuity or identity on the offensive end and any attempts to up the tempo were thwarted by a large number of foul calls. Each team shot 17 free throws in the first half, a stat which plays heavily in Detroit's favor. The Pistons were playing a more physical game than the Celtics. Both Billups and Hamilton were pushing off to free themselves for jump shots. Thatís not an excuse for Boston but, in fact, a compliment to the Pistons. The ability to shed defenders in this way without attracting whistles is an admirable trait for any offensive player.
The Celtics came out with much more intensity in the third quarter, starting the period with a 15-4 run that put Boston up four and seemed to give them the momentum they needed to keep its perfect postseason home record intact. Sparking the surge was Ray Allen, who scored only five points in the first half but exploded for 20 after the break. It was Allenís baseline fadeaway that put Boston up 58-54 and sent the Garden crowd into a frenzy. Allen scored eight of Bostonís points during the run, which doesnít include a hard drive to the basket that he didnít finish but opened up the middle for a Kevin Garnett stickback.
The Celtics followed Allenís big shot with another defensive stop when Billups missed on a baseline drive and Boston headed the other way to put some distance between themselves and the Pistons. Allen missed a jumper from just inside the top of the arc and Rip Hamilton responded with a three-pointer from the corner. Boston ran an isolation to Kevin Garnett on the block--an offensive set I deplore because it doesnít give Garnett a passing outlet. If he canít beat his defender one-on-one, Wallace in this case, then he has to shoot that fadeaway. Thatís what happened in this case and it didnít go down. The Pistons headed the other way and Wallace drilled a three, his first after 15 straight misses from downtown. Detroit 60, Boston 58. Celtics momentum gone, just like that. Pierce tied the game with a layup but Billups came back with yet another three-pointer and the Celtics were never able to tie or go ahead again.
Detroit extended its lead in the fourth quarter behind an inspired shooting display by rookie guard Rodney Stuckey. Stuckey scored 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting and added three assists and two steals. His game score of 15 paced Detroitís bench. The reserves tallied an aggregate game score of 41. Bostonís reserves managed a measly score of three, with only P.J. Brown providing any meaningful contribution. Stuckey hit three field goals in the first four minutes of the final period, helping the Pistons to an 11-point advantage.
The Celticsí got very little offensively outside of the big three. Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce combined for 75 of Bostonís 97 points and no player other than those three hit more than two field goals. Rajon Rondo had 10 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and three steals but was only 2-of-9 from the field and was very tentative when it came to taking open shots. Starting center Kendrick Perkins was 1-of-1 from the floor in 26 minutes. Perkins is Bostonís last option on the offensive end but he normally get a few token touches. Rivers canít allow the others to forget about big Perk because a couple of layups or dunks really seems to energize his performance on the boards and on the defensive end.
Detroit went cold offensively midway through the fourth but still ran down the clock thanks to some great work by McDyess off of the offensive glass. Still, Boston chipped away at the Piston lead and Allen hit a huge three-pointer, shot with the trajectory of the St. Louis arch, pulling Boston within two with 5:08 to play. But the Celtics could not pull even. Detroit just kept hitting on the offensive end, kept executing its halfcourt offense and grabbed a couple of offensive boards to keep possessions alive. Detroit scored on nine of its last 10 possessions and, fittingly, all five Piston starters scored down the stretch.
So now comes the deluge of stories about how Bostonís back is against the wall because of an complete inability to win playoff games on the road. Nonsense. This is a series that I predicted to go seven games and Iíve seen nothing that would cause me to alter that forecast. Boston won 31 road games during the regular season, including two at Detroit, where the Pistons went 34-7. The Pistons played a near-perfect game on Thursday. They needed to be perfect down the stretch to win and they were, to their credit. Nevertheless, I expect the Celtics to win at least one of the next two games in Detroit. For the moment, however, the Pistons have stolen homecourt away from the Celtics.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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