Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pistons remain the beasts of the East


In the early stages of Wednesday's Eastern Conference showdown between 20-2 Boston and 17-7 Detroit, the young point guard was playing better.

He was getting to the basket at will. He was spotting up for mid-range jumpers. He was playing turnover-free basketball, while the veteran — with his new five-year contract — carelessly lost the ball on the other end.

Yes, Boston's Rajon Rondo was the star of the first quarter, helping the Celtics establish a lead they would hold for most of the night.

But the Pistons rarely get blown out, especially in highly-hyped, national-televised games. And such was the case Wednesday.

First, there was 37-year-old point guard Lindsey Hunter harassing Eddie House all the way down the court, creating two turnovers and knocking down a guarded 3 to help Detroit take the lead.

And, finally, there was that veteran PG, the man called "Mr. Big Shot" — a moniker that fit very nicely on this night. After Boston tied the game with two 3-pointers in the final minute, there was Billups, with just a second to get off his shot, giving a most convincing head fake...

And poor Tony Allen. He had no chance. Caught in the air, he fouled Billups at the worst time: with 0.1 left on the clock. Billups is a 91 percent free-throw shooter.

I don't usually pencil in games — especially ones that are tied. But when Billups stepped to the line, I said to my dad — who was on the phone watching from Michigan — "That's the ballgame."

And two free throws later, the Pistons (18-7) remained the Beasts of the East.

Not that any game in December really matters. We all know nothing is proved until May and June. That's why Phoenix could sweep San Antonio during the regular season and I'd still bet my two sofas on the Spurs come the playoffs.

But with both teams playing close to full strength — the Pistons were without rookie guard Rodney Stuckey, who has missed the entire season so far — a lot can be gleaned from the Pistons' 87-85 win.

— These teams, easily the East's best two squads, will be very competitive the rest of the year and into the playoffs. There are too many big-time players on both teams.

— The Pistons should have posted Billups on Rondo more early and often. Likely because of this advantage, Boston coach Doc Rivers pulled Rondo in the final two minutes for House, who also has 3-point range, unlike Rondo, and hit a big one as part of Boston's comeback.

— Detroit was saved by the 3-point shot, making 9-of-20 from downtown. Boston was the more physical team, outrebounding Detroit 37-34 and getting to the basket more often. The Pistons won't always shoot that well from 3-point range.

— The Pistons were able to slow down Kevin Garnett when they put the physical, bulky Jason Maxiell on him. Although Garnett scored a team-high 26 points, he had just five in the fourth, all of which he had to earn from the free-throw line.

— Another reason Detroit was able to hold the Celtics to just 33 second-half points was Tayshaun Prince's defense of Paul Pierce. While Prince was awful offensively (1-of-10, 2 points), he held Boston's leading scorer to 11 points on 5-for-16 shooting. With Prince on Pierce, Maxiell coming in to bang with Garnett, and Richard Hamilton draped over Ray Allen, Detroit can at least contain the Big Three — although Allen was near unstoppable, hitting 9-of-13 contested shots for 24 points.

— Rondo (14 points, 7 assists, 2 turnovers) was very efficient, but as seen by Rivers' late substitution, the coach still doesn't have complete confidence in the second-year player's ability to make the right decisions at the end of a game. But overall, Rondo was impressive.

So there you have it. Before the game, the Celtics admitted that Detroit is still the team to beat in the East, and Wednesday's result doesn't change that.

When the Pistons are on their game and aren't letting their yapping at the referees — they complain about every stinkin' call — get in the way of their execution, they are hard to beat. They're a great road team that isn't flustered by noisy crowds and fourth-quarter deficits.

And, most importantly, they have Mr. Big Shot. Boston doesn't.

In the course of a game, the Big Three might be more effective than Billups. But if he and his teammates can stay in a game until the end, it is worth betting on Billups hitting the winning shot or drawing the crucial foul in the final seconds.

Wednesday's game was unpredictable for the first 47:59. What occurred in the final second, however, wasn't surprising at all. Mr. Big Shot to the rescue.


Tyler Hampton said...

The Pistons definitely are a great team and they are going to be tough to beat IF they can play well together and keep their composure. I don't think that they will be able to do that during the playoffs. If they are in a playoff match against Boston, I would bet that Boston could beat them out because of their raw talent. Detroit could get lucky a game or two, but consistent play is key to playoff wins. I think that Boston is more consistent.

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