PLAYOFF DIARY: DAY 29
Now I can rest in peace. The figure of my nightmares all season has been defeated, now trapped in the twilight zone till October. The nightmare almost resurfaced before my very own eyes. I woke up this morning at 7.30am to go work, knowing that the Boston v Cleveland game was being played at that very moment. I had a quick shower and a shave and hurried over to my laptop to check the scores: Boston up by 5 halfway through the fourth quarter, Lebron with 34 points, Pierce with 35. It was going to be tight. While I ate my raisin toast I watched the ESPN Gamecast. Lebron hit back-to-back threes, now he had 40 points… memories of that Game 5 flashed through my brain. Detroit saw Lebron coming, we could see him gaining momentum with every shot, and when he’s draining those threes you’re really at his mercy. Tayshaun Prince was at his mercy. Detroit couldn’t slow the Bron Train.
But these Celtics are not those Pistons. Paul Pierce is not Tayshaun Prince. While The King was trying to drag his Cavs back into the lead, Pierce reminded everyone that he was dragging Boston teams to victory long before Lebron came into the league. Flashes of the ’03 series against Indiana, when Pierce had 20 fourth-quarter points in game 1 to snatch a 103-100 victory. Flashes of game 4, Pierce talking trash to Al Harrington with the clock winding down. You wanna talk about ‘mentally dominating’ some one? Watch the end of this clip (could only find it in French for some reason).
Almost a year ago after the KG trade went down, I said on the podcast that the Celtics would get knocked out of the Eastern Conference Finals, with a disclaimer: “If Paul Pierce is healthy and at his best, he will take this Celtics side to the Finals. Not Kevin Garnett. Paul Pierce”. Without saying “I told you so”, today was exactly what I was talking about. When it came to the crunch, the game that really mattered, Pierce stood head-and-shoulders above everyone else on that Boston team – so far above that it wasn’t funny. KG and Ray Allen (who’s slumping continues) combined for a measly 17 points – KG had 13 of them, and he was the second highest scorer to Pierce’s 41. That doesn’t sound like the Boston Celtics we have seen all year does it? One guy scoring 42% of the team’s total points? No it doesn’t, and that’s precisely why they won.
I’ve said for a long time now that the Detroit Pistons have a problem against teams with a one-man offense, a superstar player who can play you 1-on-5 and still beat you. It sounds paradoxical, but it’s true. The reason being that when the Lebron’s of this world decide to take over a game, it difficult to match them bucket-for-bucket down the stretch when you have a balanced offense. It’s simple logic – it’s easy for one guy to get hot when he makes three or four straight buckets, but when you’re sharing shots down the other end no one is getting hot. You end up with a situation in the final minutes where one team knows exactly who should be taking the shots (Lebron) and the other team has three or four guys that are still trying to get off. Doesn’t this make it easier to defend the one guy, I hear you ask? In theory yes, but not when that one guy is a Lebron, or a Kobe.
The Celtics won today because Paul Pierce became their undisputed go-to guy, and because unlike Ray and KG, The Truth can hurt you from anywhere on the court. The Cavalier’s season ends, falling way short of their Finals appearance last year. But unlike last season when the East was fairly well balanced, this year was always a two-horse race, and no one could argue against Detroit and Boston being the deserved East finalists.
Day 29’s Playoff Votes
3 votes – Paul Pierce. 40 points in a close-fought seventh game doesn’t just get you three votes, it gets you a place in the history books. If the Celtics win the title they will look back on this game as Paul Pierce’s finest ever moment.
2 votes – Ok so I said I wouldn’t award votes to players on the losing team, but I think today I can make an exception. Lebron almost topped his Game 5 effort vs Detroit last year, and that is saying something. Just as good as Dominique was all those years ago in that other classic game 7
1 vote – P.J Brown. I’m giving him 1 vote for hitting two clutch shots right when Lebron was threatening, and for his 4-4 shooting display. That is exactly what they got PJ for – a bit of composure and reliability in the dying minutes of a close game.
Boston vs Detroit – The Eastern Conference Finals
As a Detroit fan I’ve had a long time to ponder this series, approximately six months of time. The regular season encounters were fairly close, Boston getting the upper hand 2-1, but Detroit clearly gave them a handful when most other teams were getting slaughtered. After they played their second game back in early January I talked about how fans of both teams had plenty of positives to take away. Four months later, here are my thoughts:
- Boston is still very reliant on their starters. Sam Cassell hasn’t proved a spark off the bench, and Big Baby’s form has dropped off since that Detroit game four months ago. PJ Brown has been quiet (but came up big today), Eddie House doesn’t get enough burn for my liking, while James Posey hasn’t proved to be the defensive stopper we all thought he would be. The bottom-line: Detroit has the superior bench, with Maxiell and Stuckey both making major contributions so far these playoffs, and Lindsey Hunter and Theo Ratliffe proving they’re not passed their use-by date yet. My one big fear about the Celtics facing Detroit was the play of guys like Davis, Rondo and Posey – those unsung guys who can give you 15-20 minutes that might turn a game. Basically my fears of seeing “Boobie Gibson: The Sequel”. But from watching Boston so far this postseason I’m starting to doubt they have the cast to pull off that sequel.
- Boston’s Achilles heal so far these playoffs has clearly been their play on the road, where they have been simply pathetic. You think that would continue against Detroit who have been very solid at home all year. The question remains: Can the Pistons become the first team to beat Boston at home? Without trying to be bias, the answer is “yes”. From following Detroit the last 5-6 years in the playoffs I can honestly tell you they don’t care where they play. It doesn’t matter to them. Going into Boston Garden won’t scare Detroit, as they demonstrated in the team’s first encounter this season. The key is games 1 and 2. If Detroit win one of those games the series swings majorly in their favor – if it goes to a game 7 on Boston’s floor I’m calling it even.
- The Big 3 (or should I say “Big 2 featuring Ray Allen”) have been admirable, but nowhere near as damaging as they were during the season. Ray has gone missing, KG still hasn’t taken over a game, and Pierce has been hot and cold. The Big 3 have had the matchup advantage against both Atlanta and Cleveland – especially KG – but against Detroit they’ll face far tougher resistance. KG will have to face a wall of Pistons power forwards which includes Rasheed, McDyess, Maxiell and probably a bit of Ratliffe and Amir Johnson thrown in. If the Pistons slow down KG you would think Boston don’t have the firepower to overcome it.
- Chauncey’s health. Is he back to 100%? I don’t think so, and his ability to stay healthy is a huge factor. Rondo has shown he can blow past anyone when he’s feeling it, and a hamstrung Billups may struggle on that defensive assignment. I wouldn’t be surprised if they switch the more active Rip Hamilton on to Rondo and let Billups handle Ray Allen, which isn’t such a bad matchup for Detroit. The point guard matchup was always massively in Detroit’s favor – now with Billups’ health in question, the scales may have balanced.
- The legs. Boston have played 14 playoff games to Detroit’s 11, and they will have one day off before game 1 as opposed to Detroit’s six. Considering Boston’s age, those old legs may be starting to feel it. We saw the Pistons burn out in ’06 when Lebron stretched them to 7 games in the semi-conference finals. Lebron might have done it again, and when you consider the Celtics had to chase around the young high-flying Hawks in round 1, the question of “burn out” starts to come to mind. Can the Celtics really survive another grueling, defensive seven-game series?
Ok so maybe I can’t help be a bit bias. But I’m sure even the completely impartial observer would admit the Pistons mount a good case to win this series. Regardless of who wins, one thing is for sure: unlike last season, we will have an East champion who can more than match their Western counterpart in the Finals. The East team with the best regular season record since MJ and the Bulls is facing up against the team who’s made more consecutive Eastern Conference Finals than even those Bulls did. For once, we have an Eastern Conference Finals to get excited about.