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May 12, 2008
Playoff Prospectus
Saturday's Games

by Bradford Doolittle

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Pistons 90, Magic 89

This one was pretty simple, really. The Magic was presented with a remarkable opportunity to even its series with the Pistons. It didn’t happen.

Orlando is not going to find more optimal circumstances than Saturday’s game presented. The Magic was playing at home. Detroit point guard Chauncey Billups was sitting on the bench in street clothes. The Pistons had not really been able to assimilate the loss of their leader, as the final call on that didn’t come down until the morning of the game. Once the game tipped off, Orlando played well, giving itself a rare chance to play with a lead. The Magic’s outside shooters were converting their looks at a high percentage. All the stars were aligned...and yet, the Pistons won.

Early on, Magic point guard Jameer Nelson was able to again take advantage of Billups’ backup, Rodney Stuckey. Nelson worked his way into the lane with regularity and finished the opening period with eight points, two rebounds and three assists. Detroit was running everything offensively through Rip Hamilton, an approach Flip Sanders stuck with throughout the game. Hamilton went 4-of-9 in the first quarter and Detroit was just 8-of-23 overall.

Detroit went on a 9-0 run to begin the second quarter, taking a three-point lead in the process. Sanders was riding his starters hard. Hamilton, Antonio McDyess, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince all exceeded 20 minutes in the first half and 40 minutes for the game. As the second quarter wore on, Billups’ absence became a more acute problem. Orlando was pushing the tempo and the Pistons’ offense was devoid of ball movement. The Magic went into break up 55-44 and all signs pointed towards a series-evening result. Sure, Dwight Howard was struggling against the three-headed monster of McDyess, Wallace and Jason Maxiell, going 3-of-8 in the half, but that would surely turn around in the second half. Orlando was in an ideal position.

At the beginning of the third quarter, the Magic pushed out to its biggest advantage, going up 60-46 before Sanders called a timeout with 10:37 to play in the period. At that point, Orlando was 24-of-41 from the field (58.5 percent) and 6-of-8 on threes, adding up to a cool 65.9 eFG%. Howard still had not gotten on track, but surely that was just around the corner. Soon after the timeout, Orlando’s Maurice Evans drilled a three, putting Orlando up 63-48.

Out of nowhere, the Pistons began to percolate. The Magic went nearly seven minutes without a point. Detroit’s offense remained patient in its grinding halfcourt sets, still all going through Hamilton. McDyess went to work on the inside. Hamilton got loose on the baseline and dunked in a feed from Lindsey Hunter, capping a 15-0 Detroit run and tying the game.

With the Pistons back in the game, the teams were left to slug it out down the stretch. The Pistons looked like they were going to pull away when Hedo Turkoglu, who’d once again been largely nullified by the defense of Prince, got loose, hitting three three-pointers and a layup to put Orlando up by one with three minutes to play. Detroit kept feeding Hamilton, who was posting up the smaller Keyon Dooling. Dooling compounded a foul in the final minute by knocking Hamilton into the photographers and drawing a technical foul in the process proving, yet again, that Dooling cannot be trusted on the floor in the late moments of a close game.

Nelson hit one of two free throws to put Orlando up by a point with 45 seconds left. Nelson finished 2-of-6 from the line--Orlando was just 11-of-17 overall. That’s the kind of thing that will drive Magic coach Stan Van Gundy into the broadcast booth alongside his brother. The Pistons worked the ball into Rasheed Wallace on the ensuing possession. He missed a turnaround but McDyess chased down the most important loose ball of the game. Sanders, in an inspired decision, elected to not call timeout, instead trusting his veteran bunch to organize themselves and execute the offense. The Pistons patiently worked the ball around until Prince exploded into the lane and, with his long reach, dropped in a floater from about five feet, putting the Pistons up 90-89.

The Magic set up the last-second play that they’ve been using all season: Giving the ball to Hedo Turkoglu and getting out of his way. Turkoglu won a couple of regular-season games in this fashion, including one against the Celtics in which he buried a 26-footer at the buzzer with Paul Pierce in his face. Somewhere along the line, Turkoglu has been anointed as Orlando’s closer, and Turkoglu has developed a kind of possessiveness in regards to those last-second plays. Sure, he’s hit a couple of game-winners. That didn’t make them good shots and the shot he took at the end of Saturday’s game was not a good shot either.

Turkoglu held the ball up top against Prince and then started to drive the lane with about three seconds left on the clock. He fired up a wild shot against one of the game’s best defensive players. When it bounded away from the rim, there wasn’t enough time left for the Magic to do anything with it even if they had secured the rebound. If a teammate had popped open, Turkoglu likely would not have been able to deliver a pass in time for the teammate to get a shot off. Of course, Hedo had no intention of passing the ball anyway. It was a terrible last possession for Orlando.

After its hot start, Orlando finished with a .534 eFG%, good enough to win but quite a dropoff over the last 22 minutes of the game. The Pistons went 14-of-15 from the foul line, where the game was probably decided. Howard never got it going, finishing 3-of-12 and failing to score a field goal after the first quarter. Despite controlling the tempo for much of the first half, Orlando still found itself in a game with just 79 possessions per team, a series low. Detroit finished with an edge in turnovers and on the boards, which was enough to put the Magic on the brink.

Billups’ status for Game Five is unclear. I’d anticipate that Detroit will close out the series either way. Losing Game Four in the manner in which Orlando did is a death knell. They needed Howard to carry them and, at times in the series, it has looked like he might. Overall, however, the Pistons have managed to expose some of the rough edges in Howard’s game. As good as he looks running the floor and dunking home offensive rebounds, his pure post skills are unpolished. With the game slowed down, the Pistons are able to keep him under control. If the Magic weren’t able to control the tempo in Game Four, it’s hard to imagine it happening back in Detroit.

Cavaliers 108, Celtics 84

In a vacuum, Doc Rivers and the Celtics could write off Saturday’s rout as just one of those games. The Cleveland fans were charged up. The Cavs were in a must-win situation. Cleveland’s shooters got on a roll early, built a huge lead and, even when Boston recovered, it wasn’t able to close in on the home team.

The game wasn’t played in a vaccum, though. The script followed the format of Boston’s three losses at Atlanta in the first round, which means Rivers has to be wondering what the heck is going on. The Cavaliers exploited Boston’s focus on LeBron James by committing to ball movement, starting with James. LeBron still didn’t shoot well--he was 5-of-16 in the game--but he handed out eight of Cleveland’s 29 assists, which came on 37 made field goals.

Delonte West led the way with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting against his former team. Cleveland shot a 60.9 eFG% and held the Celtics to 43.9%. Boston’s Ray Allen went 4-of-12, including 0-of-5 on threes, restarting the worries over his shooting that seemed to dissipate in the second half of Game Two. Paul Pierce made just three field goals and posted an amazing -32 on the plus-minus scale, getting outplayed by his backup, James Posey. Cleveland’s bench chipped in with an aggregate game score of 53, compared to Boston’s 17. Leading the way for Cleveland’s reserves was Joe Smith, who scored 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting.

On the defensive end, the standout thing for the Cavs was their interior defense. Boston was able to penetrate the lane repeatedly only to miss a contested shot or have it rejected. Cleveland blocked seven shots in the game and intimidated countless more, with Ben Wallace, Smith and James all chipping in in that category. The Cavs were doubling off of Rajon Rondo most of the game, a strategy that Rondo was able combat during the season by knocking down open midrange jumpers. He seems to have lost confidence in that and instead has been driving the lane at every opportunity. The problem with that is that when he gets there, he hasn’t been able to get a clean look; he had three of his shots blocked on Saturday. Meanwhile, his playmaking was non-existent. Rondo failed to record an assist in 24 minutes in Game Three.

The chemistry of Boston’s bench seems screwed up. Contributing to Rondo’s flagging confidence may be the Rivers’ decision to play Sam Cassell so many minutes in his stead, particularly in crunch time. Along those lines, Cassell and P.J. Brown have completely usurped the court time of Eddie House and Glen Davis. House and Davis were big parts of Boston’s success during the season. Brown seems rusty and slow; Davis’ energy is missed on that second unit. When Davis does get into the game, he seems to be trying to do everything at once and, thus, becomes more and more unusable as the postseason progresses. The Celtics need some kind of energy boost in these road games in which they’ve struggled, the kind of boost that House and Davis provided all season long.

Boston has to be worried. Detroit is about to close out Orlando, which will give the Pistons plenty of time to rest up for the winner of the Cleveland/Boston series. Saturday’s game indicated that the Celtics’ road problems are getting worse, not better. I still find them completely baffling. How can a team’s defensive intensity waver that much on the road? The Celtics also have to be concerned about Rondo who, in the first game, looked like he had a huge edge on West. On Saturday, Rondo’s game score was minus 11; West’s was +41. Finally, if Allen is not going to exploit Wally Szczerbiak’s defense, then Rivers must find somebody who can. The Celtics are in an urgent situation. They need to close this series in five games. Another six- or seven- game series, combined with the seven games the Celtics played in the first round, could severely hamper them against the Pistons in the conference finals. Game Four of the Celtics/Cavaliers series is going to be huge.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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