In their Game Two victory, the Detroit Pistons scored a layup on an inbounds play late in the fourth quarter that, in the opinion of many an analyst, sealed the win. That was one of many such plays that went well for the Pistons during that win. Similarly, a number of "planned" or "coached" sequences went positively for the Boston Celtics in their blowout Game Three triumph. Most people, however, remember the play from Game Two because it was magnified--late in the contest, one team needing a stop to keep a run alive, etc.--and tend to forget earlier critical plays from Game Three because they occurred at a time when there was no final indication they might decide the game.
However, there are sequences throughout a game that decide the outcome. Often occurring after a timeout or stoppage in play, these are typically sets or defensive adjustments called from the sideline. Over the course of an NBA game, anywhere from 10-20 of these opportunities present themselves, and the best coaches in the business maximize their chances for success in these situations. In Game Four of the series between the Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics, quite a few such circumstances came up. Five of them in particular contributed greatly to the Detroit Pistons victory. Let's take a look at them in further detail, presented here in chronological order.
First Sequence: 9:53 remaining in the 1st Quarter, Detroit up 8-0, coming out of a Boston timeout
Detroit came out with tremendous defensive intensity, and it helped that they brought their shooting touch early, jumping out to a quick 8-0 lead. As is the normal course of events, Celtics coach Doc Rivers called a timeout in an effort to regroup. Boston needed a score. They ran a staple play, Kevin Garnett in the mid-post. Garnett faced Rasheed Wallace up, gave him a freeze fake, then attacked hard middle. Wallace, who was initially beaten on the play, delivered a subtle hip bump coupled with a swipe at the ball. As Garnett went up for the shot, he lost control of the ball and it squirted free. Ray Allen picks up the loose ball and tosses up a 15-foot jumper that misses. The Pistons corralled the rebound, and though they did not score on their next possession, they did score the next basket to go up 10-0 just a few seconds later.
This is a demoralizing play for Boston after an early timeout. If they get a score here, it may look insignificant, but it really could have had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the game. Boston had gone to its best weapon of the series--Garnett in the post--and it had failed.
Second Sequence: First play of the 2nd Quarter, Detroit up 22-17
The Celtics were not knocked out by the flurry of blows the Pistons delivered early. In fact, they recovered nicely and closed to within five at the end of the first quarter. However, with Detroit maintaining possession to start the second period, Flip Saunders ran a set play for Rasheed Wallace, who hit a beautiful high-arcing turnaround jump shot to open the quarter. Lindsey Hunter, just inserted in the game, got a steal by poking the ball away from Paul Pierce. Hunter raced down the floor to collect the ball, then flipped it back to the sprinting Jason Maxiell for the monster dunk. Less than a minute into the new period, Detroit's lead had ballooned back to nine.
At the end of the game, Mark Jackson and other commentators suggested that every time the Celtics put together a run, the Pistons had an answer. This was the first of many answers all night. The Pistons had scored only one field goal over the last four-plus minutes of the first quarter, so they had a need to produce early in the second quarter, or the energy they had played with to start the game would be for naught. Where KG could not deliver for the Celtics in the first sequence above, Rasheed Wallace managed to get the job done for the Pistons.
Third Sequence: 9:20 remaining in the 3rd Quarter, Detroit up 47-43
Yet again, Boston was fighting for its life. Down just four to start the half, the Celtics were doing everything they could to stick around. Following an offensive foul on Rajon Rondo, Billups brought the ball into the frontcourt and called a set play. The play involved action on the strongside post and put two shooters, McDyess and Richard Hamilton, on the weakvside. As the play transpired, McDyess received the ball on the weak side, stepped up and hit a 20-foot jump shot to extend the Pistons' lead to six. Getting a turnover out of Rondo, Detroit called the same play on their ensuing possession. Again, the ball swung to McDyess. This time, the rotation came out to stop him from shooting the uncontested shot. Instead, he shuttled the ball to Hamilton. The closeout was late to Hamilton, so it was rushed. Hamilton ripped through, went baseline and scored. Detroit again went up eight, and Boston called timeout.
This is the kind of sequence that breaks a team mentally. Rajon Rondo commits two costly turnovers in succession, both converted into points by the Pistons on the other end. You could visibly see the air come out of the sails of the Celtics players. Executing flawlessly on those possessions, Detroit was setting itself up to finish the game off.
Fourth Sequence: 3:20 remaining in the 4th Quarter, Detroit up 80-73
Following a pair of made free throws from Wallace, Detroit needs to find a way to close out the game and not allow Boston any breath of life in the remaining few minutes. Ray Allen broke the defense down, got to the rim, and instead of attempting a layup--albeit contested--he shovels an ill-advised pass to Garnett that bounces off his hands and goes out of bounds. The ensuing Detroit possession is a called set, similar to the one they had run before, with Billups now on the weak side of the floor. With minimal dribbling, the Pistons have the Celtics scrambling defensively. The ball eventually winds up in the hands of Billups, who calmly drains a long-distance three-pointer to give Detroit a ten-point lead. Boston calls timeout, and attempts to run a play for a quick three pointer off of dribble penetration from Rondo. Detroit recognizes the play, runs a second defender at Rondo early and overloads the ballside to prevent any easy drive and kick. The Celtics reorganize, getting the ball to KG late in the shot clock. Garnett forces up a very difficult baseline hook shot that falls through late in the shot clock.
Though it was a net gain of just one point for the Pistons, the positives for Detroit in this sequence are clear. Boston had been playing a scrambling style of defense, helter-skelter in many ways, to try to force Detroit into a poor possession. The shot from Billups, while an open look, was not an easy one. He was at least three feet behind the three point line when he put it up. That shot going in, coupled with the difficulty Boston had on its next possession because of a swarming Pistons defense, made this sequence the one that nearly put the Celtics to sleep for good. At the very least, it made the strain on the Celtics that much more tangible.
Fifth Sequence: 1:58 remaining in the 4th Quarter, Detroit up 85-75
The Pistons run a set play, one they use typically in close games in the final minutes to guarantee at least a good look at the basket. Coach Flip Saunders elected to run a set of screens for Hamilton. Hamilton's choice: he could utilize a double screen and come up to the top of the key, or a single screen going to the baseline. Here, Hamilton brushed off of his defender (Ray Allen) and moved to the top of the key. He received the pass from Billups and recognized too aggressive a closeout from Allen. Hamilton ripped through and waltzed right down the lane, dropping in a layup between defenders to give Detroit a 12-point lead. The sequence continued, with Detroit grabbing the rebound off a missed shot from KG. Down the floor again, and as they show a propensity to do, the Pistons ran the exact same play. Allen jumped the screen slightly to avoid getting burned the same way. As he did this, Hamilton ran the opposite direction, using the single baseline screen. Allen recovered badly, coming around the screen just late enough to get a great view of Hamilton nailing a 17-foot jumper to seal the game and end any opportunity for the Celtics.
While their energy and intensity will get a lot of accolades, and many will point to these characteristics as the reason Detroit won Game Four, it had a lot more to do with their execution. There is no better example of this than this sequence, where the Pistons ran the same play twice in a row, each time getting the result they wanted, by reading the defense and following through with their game plan. Coach Flip Saunders' playbook contains dozens of plays just like this one, with multiple options based on reads and defensive reactions. The Pistons' ability to execute throughout the course of the game was typified in this sequence, and demonstrates the kind of play they will need as they prepare for Game Five.
Winning a game in the NBA often is reduced to executing, offensively and defensively, a sound game plan. In each of these cases, the Detroit Pistons executed their sets and adjustments and this is why they managed to win Game Four, tying the series with the Celtics at 2-2. There is no doubt that putting a premium on execution will be on the agenda for both teams going into Game Five. Though no one play wins or loses a game, the winner of this series will be the team that systematically finishes plays with consistency. That will be the name of the game in the next contest--almost certainly, the winner of that game will win this series.
Anthony Macri is a Player Development Specialist for The Basketball Academy and the Pro Training Center at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, where he trains high school, college and NBA players. To email him, click here.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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