There was something very revealing in the pregame coverage of Friday’s Philadelphia/Detroit tilt. First, they showed a few moments in the Pistons locker room as head coach Flip Saunders delivered his pregame speech. Not a single Piston appeared to have a passing interest in what he was saying, and their body language made that obvious. They were tying their shoes, putting their socks on and facing in other directions.
A couple minutes later we got a glimpse into the Philadelphia locker room as Maurice Cheeks delivered his pregame speech, and it was a completely different scene. The players were lined up in two rows facing their leader, nearly all in rapt attention and the four quarters that followed played out in similar fashion. It was just another piece of evidence in the case against Flip Saunders. He appears to have lost this team, struggles in the playoffs every year, and he needs to go after the season if Detroit doesn’t make the NBA Finals.
Philip “Flip” Saunders photo credit: Icon/SMI
In his speech coach Cheeks encouraged each player to simply do what they do and do it with confidence. That’s basically what happened. The 76ers played the kind of basketball that got them here, hitting the glass, getting up and down the floor, out-hustling their opponent and being demons in the passing lane. They managed an huge 15 steals and converted them into scads of easy fast-break baskets. Samuel Dalembert particularly good, finishing with 22 points, 16 boards and 2 blocks and a +27 in the +/- column. On the other side of the ball Detroit came out lethargic and continued to play sloppy, lazy basketball all game. The play of Rasheed Wallace was especially puzzling, as he was a complete non-factor on defense, on the boards and on offense. He had been the best player in the series the first two games, and he just didn’t show up, finishing with a bizarre line of 2 points and 5 rebounds on 1-for-6 shooting. Say what? Something had to be wrong. I have no inside information, but something was definitely up. The only Pistons who showed up were Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, and if they hadn’t combined for 41 points on an impressive 17-for-27 from the field this would have been a 30-point blowout.
Detroit managed to even the series at 2-2 with a 93-84 victory on Sunday. A win is a win, but it should have been a blowout. The Pistons should have come out on fire as a veteran team with a solid game-plan and motivation to spare. They should have planted their high-tops firmly on Philadelphia’s neck and never let up. Another wakeup call should not have been necessary, but Philadelphia won each of the first two quarters and led 46-36 at the half. It took an inspired third quarter with the Pistons outscoring the Sixers 34-16 to take control of the game. The lackluster victory is extremely disconcerting for all Pistons players and fans, but it’s the type of performance that has marked Flip Saunders’ teams in the playoffs over the years.
More on why Flip Saunders makes me nervous after the jump…
Chauncey Billups Photo Credit: Brandon Hansen/Icon SMI
In our preview of the Pistons season we said that one of the biggest questions for the Detroit franchise is the playoff track record of their coach. Despite the talent, on-court leadership, chemistry and experience on this roster, I’m not convinced they can. There’s no question this is one of the top four or five teams in the league, but it remains to be seen if Flip can put them in a position to play like it.
Saunders has always been able to post excellent records in the regular season, going 587-396 in his career. But when the the playoffs hit the competition gets stiffer, the games slow down, and making adjustments between contests becomes a factor he’s only managed a 39-46 record. Saunders was at the helm for the Wolves NBA-record seven consecutive losses in the first round of the playoffs and developed a reputation as a choke artist. The Pistons had Cleveland down 2-0 last May, but as is so often the case with Saunders’ teams, they lacked the killer instinct and neglected to make the strategic adjustments necessary to put it away. It’s no secret that Saunders has been roundly out-coached in the playoffs every year. Last season, just like the previous playoff exits, Flip just watched it all happen. He frequently seems to get uptight and seems incapable of making in-game adjustments and is poor at making them between games.
One of my biggest problems with Saunders is the offensive sets he runs. They’re very complicated and deliberate only but designed to get open mid-range jumpers. It’s an odd tactic, and one that doesn’t translate well to low-scoring games or late-game situations. It isn’t designed to free up players to cut to the hoop for high-percentage layups and dunks and so it doesn’t put pressure on the opposing defense. That makes it nearly impossible to win when the team isn’t shooting well from the field. The refusal to aggressively take the ball to the basket kills his teams in the playoffs — that’s where you get star treatment for your vets and get them to the foul line. Saunders’ teams are almost always in the bottom third of the NBA in free throws attempted, and in the slowed playoff atmosphere free throws become an absolutely essential form of scoring. The offense also means that Flip’s squads don’t wear down opposing defenses in terms of personal fouls. Opposing centers and power forwards don’t get in foul trouble, aren’t forced to play tentative defense, and rarely foul out. That has come back to haunt them time and time again.
Reports of the Detroit Pistons demise may have been greatly exaggerated after Friday, but even with Sunday’s win Pistons backers need to be deeply concerned. This should have been a cakewalk, and it’s turning into an evenly-matched series. The Sixers are young, inexperienced, overachieving, soft in the middle and not one of the stronger offensive teams in the league. I love their young core and think they have a bright future, but right now Philly is the worst team in this season’s playoffs. If the Pistons can’t put this thing away 4-2 then it’s hard to imagine them taking down the Celtics, Lakers, Jazz or Spurs in a seven-game series. There’s no question Detroit has the manpower to stand toe to toe with all of those elite squads, but right now Flip’s ability to made adjustments between games, motivate his team and successfully work the rotation in-game is in serious question.