Celtics 94, Pistons 80
Looks like the Celtics arenít cursed on the road after all. In Saturday's Game Three, Boston took a page from Detroitís democratic approach, riding a balanced attack to its best performance away from home so far in the postseason. Boston led for nearly the entire game and snatched back homecourt advantage from the Pistons one game after suffering its first loss at the Garden during the playoffs.
Sometimes itís hard to fathom some of the wild momentum swings you see from time to time in the NBA playoffs. Saturdayís Boston/Detroit game certainly was a stark contrast from Thursdayís Game Two in Boston. The Celtics came out blasting, going to work on the inside on offense and rotating hard on defense while scoring the first 11 points of the game. Both teams saw key players run into some early foul trouble. For Boston, Kevin Garnett had to sit with two fouls midway through the first quarter. Detroitís Chauncey Billups suffered the same fate a few seconds later. Boston had more of a buffer, though, as they had built a 15-4 lead. All five Boston starters, plus reserve P.J. Brown, had scored at least one field goal by the middle of the opening period.
Detroit dug in defensively, overplaying the Celtic passing lanes; with Garnett and Ray Allen sitting, Boston struggled for open shots. The Pistons reeled off 13 points in a row, seizing momentum and the lead away from the Celtics. As it turned out, that was the only time in the game the Pistons would lead. Doc Rivers dusted off old Sam Cassell from the end of the bench. Cassell provided a spark to the flagging Celtic attack towards the end of the opening period. His three-pointer capped a 10-0 Boston run that allowed the Celtics to re-establish command.
The Celticsí bench, which was drastically outplayed by their Detroit counterparts on Thursday, went to work in the second period. Both teams shortened their benches in this game, but Boston managed to get quality minutes from Brown, Cassell and James Posey. Meanwhile, Detroit rookie Rodney Stuckey was pressed into extended duty after it became apparent that Billupsí bum right hamstring was acting up. Stuckey certainly made some plays, but overall played an inefficient game, scoring 17 points on 4-of-12 shooting. Jason Maxiell hit a couple of jumpers but beyond Stuckey, Flip Saunders got very little production from his reserves. With all five starters, especially Billups and Tayshaun Prince, struggling, Saunders could have used some help from his bench. By halftime, the Celtics had stretched their advantage to 18 points, outshooting the Pistons 55 percent to 32 percent in the first half.
The second half was more or less a dead heat. The Celtics built their lead to as large as 22. The Pistons closed to within nine a couple of times in the fourth quarter. The last time that happened was on a Tayshaun Prince dunk with 2:56 to play that cut the lead to 87-78. Unlike Game Two, however, when Detroit scored on nearly every possession in crunch time, the Pistons were able to muster only a pair of Rodney Stuckey free throws in the last three minutes as the Celtics cruised in with the comfortable victory.
One second-half development that should be mentioned is the 1-2-2 halfcourt trap that Saunders employed while trying to narrow Bostonís lead. The trap seemed to give the Celtics problems at times. Boston committed 15 turnovers, 11 of those coming on Detroit steals. Stuckey had four of those steals and seemed very adept at playing that sort of pressure defense. At the same time, when the Celtics were able to avoid turnovers, they effectively scrambled Detroitís defense and got some good looks at the basket and some layups. In the end, the Celtics shot a .500 eFG%, their second straight game at break even or better, and scored 116.8 points per 100 possessions. Detroit shot 39.0 and had a 99.4 offensive efficiency, not nearly enough to capitalize on a plus-five showing in turnover margin. The Pistons were also thrashed on the boards, 44-28.
The most dramatic contrast between Saturdayís game and the previous one was the balance of Bostonís attack. On Thursday, Allen, Garnett and Paul Pierce combined to scored 75 of Bostonís 97 points, with none of the role players canning any more than two field goals. On Saturday, Allen and Pierce combined to score 25 points on 9-of-22 shooting, though both were effective on defense. Garnett had another big game, with 22 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and a Boston-best game score of 37, matched by Detroitís Hamilton. Bostonís big three scored 47 points in Game Three--the same as the rest of the roster.
Speaking of the big three, a Boston reader pointed out the fact that the limited window that Bostonís current roster has to bring home a title could be extended if Rondo replaced Allen as the third component of the key trio. Itís a good point and it may already be happening. Rondo posted a game score 24 on Saturday, mostly due to credit given him for the combined 5-of-18 shooting performance by Billups and Stuckey. For the playoffs, heís averaging a 24, up from 18 during the regular season. Prior to the playoffs, the Celticsí leaders in this category were Garnett (29), Pierce (25) and Allen (21). In the postseason, itís been Garnett (31), Pierce (27) and Rondo (24). Allen is at 18. Food for thought.
Iíve harped on game pace as being a key to this series for both teams. Detroit needs to keep things slow to play to its strengths in the halfcourt game on both ends of the floor. Boston needs to push the pace in hopes of getting more easy looks in transition because, on paper, the Celtics donít have the possibilities for halfcourt mismatches that Detroit does. After three games, Iím starting to think the pace isnít nearly as much of a factor as I originally thought. All three games have calculated to 80 possessions per team per game. Thatís a snailís pace and, in theory, should work in the Pistonsí favor. Nevertheless, itís the Celtics with a 2-1 lead and itís the Pistons facing a must-win contest in Game Four on Monday.
During the regular season, the Celtics were 26-7 (.788) in games with 90 or more possessions per team. Below that, Boston went 40-9 (.816). Not a big difference. Detroit played only 20 games with 90 or more possessions and went 16-4 (.800) in them. That means the Pistons were 43-19 (.694) in slower-paced games. Perhaps itís the Pistons who need to be pushing the pace. Most likely, though, my concerns about game pace have probably been overstated.
Whatís not overstated, however, is Detroitís need to win Game Four. The Pistons will need a complete turnaround from their performance on Saturday. Weíve already seen in this series, though, that the lessons from one game donít necessary apply to the following game. I suspect the rollercoaster ride is just beginning.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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