Eastern Philosophies

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

This year’s Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons may a rematch, but the teams are very different from last year’s models. The Heat still have Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, but their supporting cast has changed substantially. The Pistons’ personnel, by contrast, has remained stable, but their offensive scheme has been altered. These changes should define the series, which begins tonight in Detroit.

When new coach Flip Saunders arrived in Detroit prior to the season, he enacted one new strategy in particular to the team’s offensive scheme that appeared subtle but they produced enormous results. Simply put, the Pistons took more 3-pointers this season – a lot more. In 2004-05 under coach Larry Brown, the Pistons made an average of 4.4 3-pointers on 12.8 attempts per game; the .348 percentage was 23rd in the league. This season, they nailed 6.8 of 17.7 per contest, which ranked third in the NBA. When the playoffs arrived, the Pistons opted to take even more 3-pointers, and subsequently bettered that mark, nailing 7.7 out of 18.5 attempts, best among the teams to reach the second round.

While it’s customary for a mediocre defensive team like Golden State or Phoenix to employ a high risk/high reward offensive strategy, it’s a radical tactic for a bunch of elite defenders like the Pistons. But it certainly has worked. Detroit’s 64-18 regular-season record was a 10-win improvement over the previous season, and the team improved in Offensive Efficiency (points per 100 possessions), from 16th in the league to fourth while retaining its top five defense. The Pistons breezed through the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs, then hit a snag in the second round against Cleveland.

In Games 1 and 2 of that series, the Cavs ceded shots behind the arc to the Pistons, preferring to pack the middle and slow the post game. After seven quarters of getting routed, the Cavs changed strategies in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and outscored the Pistons 31-19 in the frame. Continuing that strategy, Cleveland managed to push the heavily favored Pistons to the brink of elimination before Detroit’s ferocious D asserted itself in Sunday’s Game 7 to assure a 79-61 win.

Can the Heat effectively duplicate Cleveland’s strategy? Probably not. Miami was a good defensive team this year, finishing ninth in Defensive Efficiency, but they were weak at defending the 3-pointer, allowing a .361 rate, 18th in the league. In the playoffs, Miami’s defense has struggled at times against the perimeter marksmanship of Chicago and New Jersey (remember, three of Miami’s four wins in the second round were close games and the Nets shot much better than their regular season average). They will likely struggle again.

The battle behind the arc is crucial because it opens up the Detroit mid-range game. When defenses are stretched to cover more of the floor, it allows space for Pistons guard Richard Hamilton to come off picks on his trademark curl play, or for forward Tayshaun Prince to back shorter opponents down along the baseline. Saunders will have to be judicious with Rasheed Wallace’s post ups, as O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning lurk in the middle. But Wallace is one of the Pistons’ better 3-point shooters, so it’s a battle that favors Detroit.

When Miami has the ball, the key will be who else can step up to help Shaq and Wade. Age and wear-and-tear are limiting Shaq’s minutes, but he’s still a 60% shooter who averaged 20 points and 9.2 boards in a mere 30 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Wade was even more impressive, shooting 49.5% and notching 27.2 points, 6.7 assists, and 5.9 rebounds in 38 minutes a game. But these two alone can’t beat the Pistons.

Except for power forward Udonis Haslem, the Heat overhauled their supporting cast during the off-season, but 93 meaningful games into the season, they have yet to reap consistent return from newcomers Jason Williams, Antoine Walker, and Gary Payton.

Walker played well against the Nets in round two, averaging 13.8 points and shooting 48% from the field – a big improvement over his regular season mark of 43.5%. But those numbers may reflect as much on the Nets’ defense, which lacks a player to match up with Walker, as it does on Walker himself. In the Conference Finals, he will be guarded by Prince, Detroit’s perimeter defensive ace, and the Miami offense may again come down to two on five.

That’s an apt description of the four regular season games these two teams played, of which Detroit won three. Shaq and Wade were in double figures in each, Williams once, Payton once, and Walker once. That’s not a recipe for beating a 64-win team, much less one that just set a record for fewest points allowed in a Game 7 in a playoff series (61 to the Cavs).

Last season, if O’Neal and Wade had been healthy, the Heat would probably have beaten the Pistons. Even with their stars bruised and nicked, the series went seven games, and Miami led Game 7 until the final two minutes. The casual assumption is that with a healthy pair of stars this season, Miami will do better, but that ignores the passage of time.

Since these two teams last squared off in the playoffs, Detroit has markedly improved its offense while Miami has slightly downgraded its personnel. Wade and O’Neal are such talents that either could have a fortnight for the ages and lead his team to victory, but that’s less likely than Detroit returning to pre-Cleveland form. The Pistons should win this series in six games.

The New York Sun

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