Anyone expecting the Pistons to avenge their 20-point loss to the Bucks last weekend with a blowout victory of their own were sorely disappointed on Monday. Sure, the Boys in Blue ended up winning by 10 and were at one point winning by 15, but the bulk of the game was a nerveracking back-and-forth series of runs. In fact, it was still a two-point game with less than two minutes left, but the Pistons live for putting games out of reach down the stretch.
It wasn't pretty -- in fact, it was often downright ugly -- but Monday's game did include a certain amount of excitement that was largely missing from the first three contests. Ian and I detected four major subplots to the game:
Pistons go low
We've all lamented repeatedly about this team's tendency to hover around the perimeter despite physical advantages down low. Rasheed Wallace has been particularly criticized this season for said transgressions while firing up an unbelieveable 434 threes. But tonight, the team reapeatedly took the ball into the post. Chauncey Billups, Sheed, and Tayshaun Prince each exploited mismatches against the Bucks defense, and it led to a steady stream of good shot opportunities close in.
The pounding in the post -- especially in the second half -- affected more than just the offensive opportunities. Without the repeated threes, the Bucks were limited in their long rebounds and forced into halfcourt sets on offense, still not a strength of Tiny T.J. Ford.
It was refreshing to see the Pistons exert their physical dominance over the Bucks for the first time in the series. Realizing that the Bucks' hot shooting had carried over from game 3, slowing the game and making the most of quality opportunities became critical. In a game where they were outshot, the Pistons' patience and execution won out.
Rip is still struggling
Is there any question that Rip Hamilton is still feeling the effects of his sprained ankle? There shouldn't be, not if you saw the way he shot the ball on Monday. Rip was among the most efficient shooters in the entire league during the regular season, shooting .491 from the field. By contrast, he went just 4-for-14 on Monday (including an uncontested layup in the final seconds) and is shooting just .345 so far in the playoffs. It got to the point where you couldn't help but cringe every time he released the ball, which you never do when he's on his game.
Rip has admitted in the past that he's a rhythm shooter, and so far he's struggled to find the bottom of the basket on a bum ankle that has left him at least half a step slow. Luckily, it hasn't affected him when he's standing still -- he sank 9-of-10 free throws on Monday, and hit a critical three-pointer in the fourth when he was spotted up in the corner.
It remains to be seen just how effective he'll be in Game 5, but the Pistons absolutely need to wrap this series up on Wednesday so that Rip can have the extra time to rest up before the second-round series with Wiz/Cavs winner.
Ben sits for the fourth
How many of you were expecting to learn of another Ben Wallace blowup (no pun intended) after he played only 27 minutes and sat for most of the fourth tonight? Those of you expecting tirade #2 -- as we considered -- were reminded again of how much of a team player Big Ben usually is. According to Flip Saunders' postgame press conference (shown on NBA TV), Ben volunteered to sit, recognizing that Antonio McDyess was in a groove. Dyess finished with 11 points, 11 boards, and a couple blocks in 28 minutes.
We're glad to be mistaken in expecting the worst from this situation, but Ben's offensive ineptitude is a lingering issue as the Boys in Blue look to advance further into the playoffs. Ben's line -- a point, 4 boards, a block, and 4 fouls in 27 minutes -- is telling. Not only did he fail to score on the offensive glass, but was wasn't getting after it on the boards either. In contrast, Jamaal Magloire collected 6 points, 12 boards, and 3 blocks in the same number of minutes.
Ben's going to be 32 later this year, and his dominating defensive performances are becoming fewer and further between. That he's still going to be the Defensive Player of the Year shows just how far ahead of his competitors he was at his peak. But for the Pistons to don the championship belts once more, they are going to need some vintage '04 performances from Ben in these playoffs. Make no mistake, this team cannot win a title without Ben's defense.
The fourth was played at the line
T.J. Ford was unstoppable in the third quarter -- he scored 16 points while helping the Bucks turn a six-point deficit into a two-point lead entering the final frame. But that's when the good times came to an end for Milwaukee -- Ford became a complete non-factor in the fourth when the Pistons slowed the game down and played a more methodical physical game. And not too surprisingly, considering how tight the refs called the game all night, both teams got into foul trouble early in the fourth, leading to a combined 31 free throw attempts by both teams, all in the final eight and a half minutes.
Don't let the final score fool you -- the Pistons may have scored 109 points, but they often struggled to find their rhythm offensively. Even still, they were able to score 35 points in the fourth quarter largely as the result of going 16-for-18 from the charity stripe. In the final three minutes, Chauncey Billups put the game on ice, sinking all 10 of his freebie attempts to finish 16-for-16 on the night.
This was not a pretty game, and the frequent stoppages in play for foul shots late in the game made it extremely frustrating to watch. But nine times out of ten, the Pistons will win these late-game free-throw shooting contests provided they can get the ball into the hands of their starting backcourt. (Incidentally, you might be wondering if Ben's absence in the fourth had something to do with the team's collective success at the line. Perhaps it did, but Antonio McDyess split his two fourth-quarter attempts and finished 1-for-4 on the game. Ben has shot a dismal .416 from the line this year, but McDyess has been sub-par as wel by shooting .557. )
So there it is, Game 4 is in the books. And since the Mavericks swept the Grizzlies, the Game 5 matchup between the Pistons and Bucks will now be televised on TNT instead of being relegated to second-citizen status on NBA TV. Realize, though, that since TNT is showing a doubleheader that includes two games being played on the East Coast, Wednesday's tip-off at the Palace will be an unusually early 6 PM, so plan your departure from work accordingly, especially if you're among the lucky 22,000 going to the game.