The outcome was predictable, if not everything that happened in between. Detroit let an 18-point lead in the first half dwindle to nothing late in the fourth quarter, but in the end Chauncey Billups put the team on his back to secure the win, not to mention the Central Division title and the top seed in the East.
Billups finished with 28 points and eight assists, simply abusing the smaller Jameer Nelson for 10-13 shooting (3-4 from long distance). The Pistons will probably be facing the Magic in the first round of the playoffs (they trail the Nets for the seventh seed by one and a half games and lead the Pacers for the last spot by one), and that's a good thing -- it'll help Billups open the postseason on the right foot.
In four games against Orlando this year, Billups has averaged 26 points on 62% shooting. That's not a fluke, as Billups has three inches and probably 15 pounds on Nelson. The Magic will undoubtedly mix things up defensively -- Grant Hill took turns guarding Billups at times late in Wednesday's game -- but as long as Nelson is on the court there will be a mismatch somewhere.
Billups took a knee to his thigh late in the fourth and was definitely hobbling as he tried to walk it off, but it's unclear if it will have any lasting effects. It didn't stop him from nailing a clutch three-pointer on the ensuing possession, but it might be one of those things that gets a little stiff once the blood stops flowing. Then again, it's also probably nothing Arnie Kander can't get rid of with a magic potion consisting of whatever happens to be sitting in the vegetable drawer in his refrigerator mixed in with last night's leftover takeout Thai.
Hill had an excellent start for the Magic with 17 points before halftime, but he managed just five more after the break. It's a good thing he cooled off, as Orlando outscored Detroit by five after halftime, and had he stayed hot he probably could have led his team to the upset.
In fact, had Orlando just hit a few more free throws, the Pistons would have been in trouble -- they missed 14 free throws, going 21-35 from the stripe, with Dwight Howard (6-16) the biggest offender. Howard made up for it with 16 boards and a couple of blocks, but he'll never realize his true potential until he gains consistency at the line.
Sadly (or not, depending on your perspective), the other two players with Detroit connections were complete non-factors -- Darko Milicic played a quiet 21 minutes (four points, two boards) while Carlos Arroyo was handed the DNP.
As for the rest of the Pistons, Chris Webber's contributions remain extremely sporadic, though I'm withholding judgment until the playoffs. He has a tough defensive assignment when he's matched up against dominant big men like Howard last night and Eddy Curry on Monday. And besides, with Antonio McDyess once again living up to his "sixth starter" status, it's not like Detroit has struggled to get consistent production out of their front court.
From here on out it's pretty much the exhibition season once again -- don't be surprised if the starters are held to no more than 30 minutes apiece in each of the final four games as Flip Saunders gets everybody rested for the playoffs. It should actually be pretty entertaining, since I'm guessing we'll see a lot more of Jason Maxiell and Dale Davis playing together, as well as extended minutes for Carlos Delfino and hopefully even Ronald Dupree.
Other takes on the game:
- Detroit News: Pistons clinch in the East
- Detroit Free Press: Pistons secure top seed in the East
- Orlando Sentinel: Magic loss puts Bucks on Orlando's tail
- ESPN Daily Dime: Seed of wisdom take root
- Need4Sheed: Pistons Clinch Top Seed in the East
- The Hardcourt: Pistons Beat the Magic, Clinch Home-Court and Surprise Me