Celtics 89, Pistons 81
One of the first stones cast at the new version of the Celtics last summer, back when Boston acquired Kevin Garnett from Minnesota, was that a big three of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen was too old to survive intact into June.
Allen had played in just 55 games for Seattle last season. Pierce managed a mere 47 outings for the Celtics. Even the once-indestructible Garnett finished last season on the shelf. There was no way these three could survive the grind of carrying a thin roster deep into the playoffs. Oh, yes..."thin roster" was another salvo fired at the team Danny Ainge built. He had surrendered too much of the team’s depth to acquire Allen and Garnett. With the new big three eating up so much cap space, there weren’t sufficient resources to surround the core trio with adequate role players.
By the time the Celtics sprinted out to a 29-3 start to the regular season, it became apparent that not only did Ainge surround his stars with good enough role players, he in fact built one of the deepest rosters in the league. In doing so, he afforded Celtic coach Doc Rivers the luxury of managing the minutes of his veteran leaders. Pierce missed a couple of games, Allen missed nine and K.G. missed a career-high 11 games. All of them played significantly fewer minutes on a per-game basis than they have in years. Yet the roster was deep and talented enough that Boston still won a league-best 66 games and was spring fresh entering the playoffs.
Boston had some troubles during the first two rounds of the postseason, namely winning on the road and playing consistent defense away from home. Those issues have been well covered. The homecourt advantage that came with Boston’s regular-season performance was instrumental in allowing the Celtics to survive those first two rounds. Further, the depth of the roster and the relatively light loads carried by the stars during the season may be what allowed the Celtics to survive the Pistons.
Amid all of the discussion about the advanced age of Boston’s leading three was the fact that the Pistons’ top trio--Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace--were the same aggregate age. Garnett/Pierce/Allen are a combined 93 years old--the same as Detroit’s big three. Meanwhile, the Celtics' starting role players--Rajon Rondo (21) and Kendrick Perkins (22)--are considerably younger than Detroit’s supporting cast (Antonio McDyess is 33; Tayshaun Prince is 27).
One couldn’t help but think of these things in Friday’s Game Six. The Celtics, supposedly the team that couldn’t stand the grind, were playing their 20th playoff game since April 20. Yet facing a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter--the time when fatigue rears its head--it was the Celtics who went on a spirited run that closed out the series and propelled Boston to its first crack at a championship since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
The teams were mired in a sluggish affair until things took off in the third quarter. Boston had built a six-point lead. Prince went to work on a post-up, hitting a jump hook over Pierce in the lane. Pierce tried to retaliate with a drive to the hoop but he was out of control and looked for a whistle that wasn’t forthcoming. He stayed on the Boston end to argue his cause while Billups pushed the ball up the floor, got Allen to commit to covering the wing and pulled up to nail a three-pointer. One-point game. Allen turned the ball over on a nice defensive play by Rodney Stuckey. Billups headed the other way and drove inside. Meanwhile Prince drifted out to the three-point line. Pierce was slowed by Theo Ratliff grabbing his jersey on a pick, leaving Prince open for a three that gave Detroit a 56-54 lead, its first since midway through the first quarter.
The Pistons pushed the lead to six when Pierce got Prince into the air on a pump fake. He took the contact and threw in a three-pointer. The whistle blew--against Pierce. He had shuffled his feet to the side and moved under Prince. It was a good call, if a little unorthodox, though commentator Jeff Van Gundy correctly pointed out that Pierce had traveled on the play. (It’s tough to move horizontally in basketball without a dribble and not travel.) Nonetheless, it appeared to be a game-changing sequence. Instead of a possible four-point play that would have trimmed the lead to two, Prince drew another foul on Pierce and his free throws put the Pistons up 66-58.
You might think reading through these sequences that Prince got the better of Pierce in their one-on-one matchup on Friday. That’s far from the case. Other than this stretch of the third quarter, Pierce dominated Prince; that was probably the key to the game for Boston. Pierce scored 27 points on just 12 field-goal attempts, had eight rebounds, three assists and held Prince to 10 points on 3-of-10 shooting. All told, Pierce posted a game-best game score of 44. Prince finished with a big, round zero.
A flurry of Sam Cassell misses and turnovers ensued. Hamilton hit a jumper off of a swing pass to the weak side from Ratliff, putting Detroit up 70-60 with 10:29 to play. The Game Seven on Sunday that I anticipated all along appeared imminent. A colleague poked his head into the office where I was watching the game and said, “Oh, the Pistons are going to win.” (My response: “Have you even seen an NBA game?”)
This is the point in game the where the conventional wisdom on these teams would have suggested that the Pistons would cruise to the win. The Celtics would not have the legs or the energy to mount a comeback on the road against that kind of a deficit. Instead, it was the Pistons that folded.
Rondo got things started with a runner in the lane. James Posey started muscling Hamilton, committing two straight fouls but finally picking off a pass, leading to a Pierce drive into the lane on which he kicked it to Perkins on the baseline for an and-one dunk. Lead down to five.
Billups then drove and kicked to Wallace for a good look at a three. He missed--one of numerous open shots that the Pistons missed in the fourth quarter. Tired legs? Perhaps, but it had to have Piston fans grinding their teeth all night long. Boston isolated Garnett on the block and drew Wallace’s fifth foul. Wallace was dreadful in the game, shooting 2-of-12, committing three turnovers, cursing a cameraman and throwing a towel at him to boot. Garnett’s free throws brought Boston within three.
Detroit, digging in to maintain control, ran a two-man pick-and-roll with Prince and Ratliff, which worked about as well as you’d expect. Prince was forced into a travel when nothing opened up. Boston went to another iso to K.G. on the block, this time against Jason Maxiell. He nailed a turnaround, Boston down 70-69. Billups then missed a wide open three left to him thanks to an ill-conceived gamble by Rondo. Then he missed another one after a Posey turnover when Rondo got tangled up in a McDyess screen.
Trying for the lead, Boston went with its bread-and-butter set--a high pick-and-roll with Garnett screening for Pierce. They ran the set twice on the same possession, actually, drawing a pair of fouls, putting Detroit over the limit. Pierce hit one of two from the line and the game was tied. The Pistons actually scored twice in a row, both baskets by Maxiell on postups. Boston answered with two straight baskets of their own. The first was a pick-and-pop with Rondo kicking out to Garnett for jumper. The second was another Pierce/Garnett play that opened the lane for a Pierce layup and a foul, which he converted to give Boston a one-point lead with 5:25 remaining.
The Pistons never led again. Boston kept running the pick and roll, sometimes with Rondo but mostly with Pierce and always with Garnett setting the high screen. A Rondo jumper with 2:34 left put Boston up 83-76. All told, it had been a 23-6 run for the Celtics. Down the stretch the Pistons missed, by my count, five open looks at three-pointers, most of them coming up short. In the end, it had been the Celtics with more gas left in the tank.
Now the Celtics will face the Lakers, a team with younger legs and with an offense that has become virtually unstoppable. The NBA has provided us with a nice break to exhale and relax for a few days. Come Thursday, though, basketball fans will be treated to a classic matchup. Not only will the Finals feature two of the NBA’s flagship franchises, but the matchup presents a classic contrast of styles. It should be a tremendous series and with David Stern getting the confrontation that I’m sure he was dreaming of, chances are there will be plenty of viewers to witness the fun.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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