Celtics 88, Pistons 79
Can you feel the Celtics championship bandwagon gaining momentum? A couple more wins and Bostonís title drive may reach terminal velocity.
The Celtics answered any concerns that they would come out flat for the first game of the Eastern Conference finals right off the bat. A bit more than 48 hours after Boston eliminated the Cavaliers in an emotionally-charged Game Seven on Sunday, Boston began Game One against the Pistons with a burst of energy and charged out to an 8-0 lead. The Pistons, as they are wont to do, edged their way back into the contest and actually led in the second quarter. Nevertheless, if the Celtics were going to lose on Tuesday, it was not going to be because they came out emotionally flat.
Before the game, the TV talking heads all agreed that it was more essential for the Celtics to win Game One than for the Pistons to do so, primarily because Detroit has proven it can win on the road and Boston hasnít. To me, thatís making the mistake of out-weighing the events of the first two rounds at the expense of the Celticsí larger body of work throughout the season.
If the rosters of either team were significantly different that they were for most of the campaign, thatíd be different. Other than Bostonís addition of Sam Cassell, who has become the Celticsí ace cheerleader, and P.J. Brown, these are the same squads that compiled regular-season win totals of 66 and 59, respectively. Boston was 31-10 on the road during the regular season, including a 12-9 mark against playoff teams. That makes it an aberration that the Celtics havenít won on the road in the playoffs and the longer they last in the postseason, the less likely it is that the winless road skid is going to continue. Boston is 35-6 at home this season, 44-6 if you include the playoffs. Iíd say the odds are greater that Boston will take a road game in this series than it is that theyíll lose a home game. Because of that, I thought it was essential that the well-rested Pistons steal Game One against a Boston team that had almost no time to prepare for the conference finals. That didnít happen, and itís only going to get more difficult for the Pistons.
Complicating matters for the Pistons are the continuing health problems of Chauncey Billups. Billups was clearly nowhere near 100 percent and was soundly thrashed in his head-to-head duel with Rajon Rondo. Billups played 31 minutes and posted the worst +/- for Detroit, a minus 18. His backup, rookie Rodney Stuckey, was better (he posted a plus five) but Stuckey is not as efficient running the offense and his defense is a significant dropoff from a healthy Billups. During the playoffs, Detroit is allowing 85.1 points per 100 possessions with Billups on the floor. With Stuckey in there, the figure soars to 94.3. That deficiency was in evidence at the end of the third period when Stuckey got hung up on a high screen by James Posey, which allowed Stuckeyís man, Eddie House, to spring free for a wide open three-pointer. House drained the shot, putting Boston up 69-57 entering the final period.
Billups did not spend much time guarding Rondo, though Rondo did check Chauncey at the other end. Instead, Billups was usually matched up with Ray Allen while Rip Hamilton took Rondo. Iím not sure that this cross-matching really serves any purpose from the Pistons standpoint. I would think that youíd want the more physical Billups beating up on the slender Rondo as much as possible. The fact that Flip Saunders opted for this defensive alignment said two things. First, it suggested that he knew Billups was not up to snuff and wanted to give him an easier defensive assignment. Second, it said that at this juncture, that easier matchup is against Allen, who continues to flail way from the outside. Allen was 3-of-10 from the floor with all three of his made field goals coming on layups. To he credit, he played hard on the defensive end, hounding Hamilton into a 5-of-13 shooting performance. Rondo was magnificent on both ends, scoring 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting, handing out seven assists and getting five steals.
Rondo did a good job for the most part of pushing the tempo, which played into Bostonís favor. He created a couple of wide-open looks for Allen in transition. While Allen couldnít hit those shots, itíll be important for Boston to continue to push the pace and advance the ball down the floor with the pass. Luckily for Boston fans, Doc Riversí comments in his beginning-of-the-fourth-quarter interview indicate that tempo is one of his points of emphasis for this series.
Paul Pierce was outstanding for the second straight game. His performance on the offensive end of the floor against LeBron James in the previous round had slipped so far that I felt that Rivers needed to take the ball out of his hands, using Rondo as the primary playmaker and using Pierce on the wing. Pierceís Game Seven outburst against Cleveland rendered that bit of advice silly. He was able to take the best of what he did in that game and translate it into another strong outing on Tuesday. Pierce made quick decisions with the ball in his hands and almost always made the correct one. He didnít settle for too many jumpers, a fatal mistake when going against Tayshaun Prince, and instead used his edge in strength to get into the lane and collapse the Pistonsí defense. He was effective at kicking out to open shooters and was also mostly effective at finishing at the rim. I say ďmostlyĒ because Pierce still exhibited his astonishing trait of missing open layups after heís beaten his man off the dribble. Itís almost like he needs to get hit to finish off a drive.
Boston effectively ran the high pick-and-roll play with Kevin Garnett and Pierce all night long. Bird and McHale would have been proud. Detroit will adjust to that, youíd think, but it was pretty to watch in Game One. Garnett continued his season-long domination of Rasheed Wallace at the offensive end, hitting 11-of-17 shots and getting more looks moving towards the basket than he usually does. Overall, the game had more fluidity and offensive smoothness than I anticipated. There were only 80 possessions for each teamóthese are the Pistons weíre talking about--but Boston posted an offensive efficiency of 109.7 on the wings of a 53.6 eFG%. The ball movement was vintage Celtics--27 assists on 36 field goals, including 16 of 19 in the first half.
Detroitís numbers were 98.5 efficiency and 45.5 eFG%. The real bugaboo for the Pistons was turnovers, 13 of them. Seven of those came during the Celticsí third quarter burst that left the Pistons in an uphill battle for the last quarter and a half. Nevertheless, Detroit managed to hang around. When you look at the numbers, itís hard to see how. According to my game scores formula, each of the Boston starters outplayed his Piston counterpart and the Celtics also won the battle of the benches. Detroit was outshot from the floor and made just two more three-pointers, one of those coming on a meaningless shot from Prince at the gameís final buzzer. The Pistons did outscore Boston 19-14 at the line, but that advantage was 14-3 in the first half. Still, if Wallace had knocked down a good look at a three from out top with 3:41 left, Detroit would have trailed by just three points in crunch time.
Looking ahead, the Celtics clearly canít get complacent. Wednesdayís game was nice but, Detroit was still very much a part of the game well into the fourth quarter. The Pistons have to be concerned about Billups. He did not look fit in Game One even though he hadnít seen game action in two weeks. Itís hard to see how his hamstring problems are going to get any better now that Detroit is back on a game-every-other-day schedule. The Celtics have to be ready for Detroit to adjust to Bostonís pick-and-roll attack that worked so well in the first game. Boston must continue to push the pace and, at some point, Allenís outside shot has to return. If it does, Boston could make this series a short one.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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