May 3, 2008
Detroit Pistons: 59-23, 2nd seed
Orlando Magic: 52-30, 3rd seed
Head-to-Head: Split the regular-season series 2-2.
One team has been there five times in a row and desperately wants to get back; the other hasn’t been there in over a decade and has had their sights set on returning to the Eastern Conference Finals—and beyond—ever since Superman came to town. The Detroit Pistons want another shot at a championship, a feat that would cement the legacy of their core group as one of the very best in NBA history. The Orlando Magic, on the other hand, are itching to prove that the future is now, that they have officially re-established themselves as a legitimate contender.
These two squads meet in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals from different angles and with something different to prove, but both want a victory just as badly… and both think they deserve it.
After sleepwalking through two of their first three games against the Philadelphia 76ers in Round 1, the Detroit Pistons flipped their infamous switch and closed out Philly in six games. Perhaps it was simply a case of settling down, locking down, and rekindling their fire after coasting for much of the regular season’s last month or so. Or maybe Philly is better than their record and deserved as much credit for their two wins as Detroit deserved criticism for their losses. Either way, the Pistons finished the series with three convincing wins in a row and seem to have gotten their mojo back.
A lot of it had to do with Tayshaun Prince, who was the team’s Round 1 MVP because of his steady play at both ends of the floor. On defense, the long and lanky fifth-year player frustrated rising star Andre Iguodala for most of the series, playing a major role in limiting him to just 33% FG on the series. When the Pistons had the ball, Prince answered the bell time and time again, pushing his field-goal percentage to a lofty 65% compared to 44% during the regular season. Despite turning in a terrible performance in Game 3, Rasheed “Roscoe” Wallace also had a solid series, nailing 13 triples and averaging over 3 blocks per.
The Magic drew perhaps the most favorable matchup in the playoffs for Round 1 in the Toronto Raptors, a team the Magic had little trouble overpowering and eventually dispatching in a tidy five games. They established their own personal superhero, Dwight “Superman” Howard, early and often, relying on the big man to set the tone in the paint with his patented power dunks and filthy shot rejections. The 22-year-old pulled down 20+ rebounds in three of the five games and recorded 3+ blocks in all but one, proving that his status as the league’s most dominating center hasn’t changed between the regular season and the postseason.
This is a team that lives and dies by their ability to knock down three-pointers: with 25.3 attempts/per, only the Golden State Warriors attempted more longballs this year. When they’re hitting, the Magic can build big leads or cut down significant deficits in a hurry, but they’ll need to diversify their attack against the Pistons, who finished the regular season as the NBA’s top defensive team in yielding just 90.1 points/per to opponents. They get their hands up and in the face of shooters, have excellent help-side rotations when they’re beaten on the perimeter, and usually stay out of foul trouble. Orlando was near the top of the pack in team defense as well, allowing 99 points and 44.6%/per.
These teams met in the first round last year, with the Pistons advancing in a convincing sweep. Neither is putting much stock in that series, however, and both know they’re in for a slugfest.
ETB breaks down the Pistons-Magic series and rolls out our predictions after the jump…
On paper this matchup looks to heavily favor the Detroit Pistons and their All-Star backcourt of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, but it’s not quite that cut and dry.
Yes, Chauncey Billups (6-3, 202 lbs) has absolutely dominated his smaller Magic counterpart Jameer Nelson (6-0, 190 lbs) in recent years, a trend that should continue this series. Billups’ well-known moniker of “Mr. Big Shot” was largely garnered on his clutch postseason play during these last 5 years his team has gotten to at least the Conference Finals, but over his past two series (against Philadelphia in Round 1 and Cleveland in the ’07 ECF), he’s struggled some both with his shot- and decision-making.
He’ll start this series with a healthy dose of confidence against Nelson, and showed signs of coming out of his extended postseason funk during the Pistons’ last two games against Philadelphia, averaging 20.5 points, 9.5 assists, 61% FG, and just 2 turnovers/per in that stretch.
The question is whether or not Nelson and the Magic coaching staff have picked up on what seems to be Billups’ Achilles heel and will work to exploit it. When Billups is allowed to walk the ball up the court, call out the set, and get his team into motion without much duress, he and his Pistons’ teammates are capable of picking just about any team apart. The Magic can significantly disrupt their opponents’ offensive flow, however, by simply pressing Billups all the way up the court and especially beyond the arc. The Pistons PG has not been responding well to early pressure and double teams, a fact that the Cleveland Cavaliers clued into last year and exposed with great success. Nelson clearly cannot handle Billups one-on-one, so it’ll be on his coaches and teammates to help him out early in the shot clock… and of course to cover each other when they leave their own man to help out.
Richard Hamilton averaged better than 50% from the field over the course of these teams’ four regular-season meetings, so the Magic’s backcourt headache certainly doesn’t begin and end with containing Billups. The Pistons will also bring rookie Rodney Stuckey off the bench for offense as well as fellow rookie Arron Afflalo and veteran Lindsey Hunter for defense. Afflalo, especially, distinguished himself as an above-average defender in Round 1 in helping limit Andre Iguodala during his 10:35 minutes/per. But again, the Magic may not match the Pistons’ backcourt in star power (or depth), but they’ve enjoyed their own degree of success in this matchup this season too.
Former Piston Maurice Evans, who has stuck as the Magic’s starting SG, is a highly competent long-range bomber who is deadly from the corners when he’s feeling it. He shot 40% from three-point land in Round 1 against the Raptors, including a 4-4 start in Game 1. Over half of his attempted shots in that series were threes. He averaged just 6.8 points and 1.8 boards against Detroit in the regular season, but is someone the Pistons cannot lose track of on the perimeter. The same goes for his backup, the steady Keith Bogans, who absolutely torched Detroit this year in shooting an astounding 75% from the field, including 12-14 from behind the arc (!!!). As I said in the prelude, the Magic largely live and die by their ability to knock down long balls, so it’s on Evans and Bogans to carry their share of the load in that department. Keyon Dooling can also get it done off the bench; erratic, wild Carlos Arroyo barely played in Round 1.
The Orlando Magic have ridden their excellent starting frontcourt all season long, and they’ll need them to come up big in this matchup for them to have a shot at knocking off the Pistons. Hedo Turkoglu, recently named the NBA’s Most Improved Player, will likely have to deal with Tayshaun Prince’s long arms and shutdown man-defense, a challenge that many a-superstar (Tracy McGrady, Andre Iguodala, etc.) have found to be a major pain in the arse.
Prince was at the top of his game on both ends of the floor against Iguodala and Philadelphia in Round 1, but Turkoglu is a different kind of player and can really hurt Detroit with his ability to knock down perimeter shots as well as get to the hole and dish to open teammates. He struggled some with shot against Toronto (41%), but still averaged about 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. For his part, Prince was spectacular on offense in the Philly matchup as one of the only Pistons to not experience any kind of shooting slump in the series. He shot 65% FG, including an 11-12 effort in Game 5.
Starting PF Rashard Lewis, the Magic’s big free-agent acquisition in the offseason, has turned into one of the league’s most prolific long-range chuckers this year and upped his per-game three-point attempts in Round 1 to 8/per… but only sank 25% of them. Will he improve that percentage against the Pistons, a team who’s at least twice as good defensively as the Toronto Raptors? The Magic better hope the answer is yes. On defense, Lewis will likely find himself on the blocks all game long against the brawnier, bruising Jason Maxiell—who is now starting after Antonio McDyess broke his nose—as well as Dice off the bench. Look for the Pistons to try and exploit Lewis here and wear him down.
Of course, the headline frontcourt matchup is Rasheed Wallace versus Dwight Howard, two players who’ve expressed a lot of mutual admiration for each other over the last few seasons. There will be no lovefest here, however, and there’ll be no on- or off-court mentoring and tips from ‘Sheed to Howard as there’ve apparently been in the offseason. Wallace is the Pistons’ best post defender, and his inside-outside game could cause matchup problems for Howard and the Magic. Superman Howard, of course, was absolutely dominant in Round 1, averaging 22.6 points, 18.2 rebounds, 63% FG, and 3.8 blocks/per. He’s had a chip on his shoulder all year about his Magic not being in the conversation as a top team in the East; now’s his time to prove the doubters wrong.
He’s led the league in blocked shots three times, made a trip to the NBA Finals as the starting center for the Philadelphia 76ers, and rejoined the Detroit Pistons late in the season to lend them a veteran defensive presence in the post if/when needed in the playoffs.
After playing a bit part against the run-and-gun 76ers in Round 1, that time has come for 12-year veteran Theo Ratliff.
Though Rasheed Wallace has a history of playing solid man-defense on Dwight Howard, there’s no way he can take the physical toll of bodying up with the Magic’s 6-11, 265 Mound of Muscle for 40+ minutes a night. When he needs a blow, or if he gets in foul trouble, Ratliff will likely be the first big off Flip Saunders’ bench to get a crack at Howard. He’s essentially assuming the role that Dale Davis, Elden Campbell, et al. filled for the Pistons in recent postseasons during their clashes with Shaquille O’Neal and the Miami Heat, and he’ll need to hold his own and not allow Howard to have his way on the blocks (read: easy dunks). If he can contain Howard—and use his six fouls wisely in choosing when to send the 60% career free-throw shooter to the line—Ratliff may prove Pistons GM Joe Dumars a wise man for adding the creaky vet to the roster for situations exactly like this one.
Andrew: Detroit Pistons in six.
Brian: Detroit Pistons in six.