Eastern Conference Finals Preview
The team with all the depth has had all the rest, while the squad who only goes seven deep was pushed to seven games in the previous round. With Shaq, Mourning, Haslem and even veteran banger Michael Doleac, the Miami Heat have the beef to bully the Detroit Pistons underneath. And with a surfeit of graybeard vets who probably just have this last legitimate shot at a ring--Shaq, Mourning, Payton, 'Toine Walker, and coach Pat Riley--there is motivation aplenty for Miami to will themselves to the NBA Finals.
Detroit in 6.
The top three reasons I like the Pistons.
1) Miami doesn't have a good answer for Chauncey Billups.
Cleveland's Eric Snow is being given a ton of credit for forcing Billups into a subpar series in the second round, but I think Billups just hit a bad patch. Yes, Snow had something to do with it, but let's face it, the Pistons, and particularly Billups, were due for a little ennui at some point on this long trek back to the third straight championship finals. And once they had schooled the Cavs twice early, it happened in the middle three games of the series. Now, Billups will be focused, and have the underwhelming Jason Williams defending him when the waaaay-past-his-prime Gary Payton isn't. That means Billups will get his own shot, from outside the arc or off the dribble, pretty much whenever he wants it, with the tug of a rotten Cavs series spurring him on. I think he averages 20 points per game (if, as expected, the scores are in the 90s; he'll get more if Detroit goes into triple digits) this time.
2)The Pistons have at least partial answers for Dwyane Wade. I happen to think Wade is the second-best player off the dribble in the league this year--better than Kobe and AI, which is really saying something. But the Pistons just finished playing the one guy who is Wade's superior, in LeBron. Wade is slightly quicker but also appreciably smaller, meaning the Pistons can throw Rip Hamilton on him occasionally and use Tayshaun Prince, their invaluable stopper, only at the most crucial times, as when Shaq is on the bench and the Heat are relying on Wade to carry the entire load. I think Wade will have a marvelous series--perhaps only Iverson is more fun to watch this year, including LeBron, whose enormous heart is more closely camoflagued by his incredible physique--but eventually Prince will take enough out of him to prevent Wade from willing his team to four wins. Plus, don't underestimate the fact that Wade will have to chase Hamilton, the perpetual motion machine, through dozens of Flip's famous picks; or guard Billups, who is the most physical quality point guard any defender faces.
3) Experience. This is usually an overrated quality. But when you've won 11 of your past 12 elimination games, pretty much with the same guys, over the past four years or so, it really matters. Like the Spurs, you will have to drive a stake into the heart of the Pistons, they won't fold. And there is no opponent the caliber of Dallas to do that in this series.
For Devil's Advocacy sake, I think the Heat wins if the whistles blow in their direction. Between Wade's penetration and O'Neal's post-up game, they have two of the league's most productive generator of fouls on opponents. Ben Wallace can't afford to foul Wade on layups very often, if ever--he's got to save every foul for Shaq. And if Ben Wallace does get in foul trouble early, the Pistons are in deep shit, what with the beef Miami can bring. Antonio McDyess has already proven in the playoffs why he, and not Mike Miller, was the 6th Man of the Year, but with just him and 'Sheed against the likes of Shaq, Mourning, and Haslem, it becomes a rough, rough go. Don't underestimate Mourning's contribution--in fact I think whoever plays best between McDyess and Mourning will be a crucial swing factor in this series--because Zo was great versus Miami and have a thrilling desire to win. There is also the chance that Walker and Posey and Williams will get hot from behind the arc, freeing up the double-teams on Shaq, allowing the big aristotle to go off and regain the rhythm that Miami needs to pull the upset. This all could happen, but I think Billups, McDyess and company (including Lindsay Hunter who is the logical guy to implement Flip's standard practice of putting full-court pressure on J-Will, and has had great success against Wchoc's team as a result) have had their scare and will beat back a team that unfortunately needs to rely on Wade a tad too much to triumph. Unless the Pistons get in foul trouble of course.
What does everybody else think? I feel badly that we've let this blog lag during an unbelievable two rounds of NBA beauty. Let's see if we can all put our oars in a little more for the final two rounds.