Saturday, April 18, 2009
Beginning this afternoon, the eighth-seeded Pistons will take on the heavily favored Cleveland Cavaliers in the opening round of the NBA playoffs. If the Pistons are to extend their streak of conference finals appearances, they will need to pull off a major upset. What follows is a breakdown – player by player – of the series.
Point Guard: Rodney Stuckey vs. Mo Williams. Stuckey had an up and down sophomore campaign. While the circus surrounding his second season was nothing like his relatively calm rookie year, his per-minute statistics were almost identical, save for a nearly 4% improvement in field goal percentage. Williams was given an All-Star spot after his teammates, coaches, and owner bickered about the fact that was (correctly) excluded from the initial roster. While he may not have deserved that honor, he had an excellent first season in Cleveland. According to NBA.com’s “Hot Spots,” Williams converted a remarkable 45.9% of long twos and 43.6% of threes. He made defenders pay for doubling LeBron all season long.
Stuckey should be able to use his superior size and strength to get past Williams; however Cleveland has a fierce frontline protecting the paint. Stuckey did not reach double figures in scoring in any of the four meetings with Cleveland this season. On the other end, Stuckey would normally be able to handle Williams, but LeBron James changes that equation. Every Piston defender has to be conscience of James. As a result, Williams should have several open jumpers each game. Based on his track record, that could prove to a major thorn in the side of the Pistons.
Shooting Guard: RIP Hamilton vs. Delonte West. Hamilton is the Pistons’ best hope on offense in this series. Unfortunately, as John Hollinger pointed out, West is among the league’s most improved defenders. Hamilton has three inches on his counterpart, but the Piston offense too often stagnates when they run post plays through perimeter players. Detroit should run plenty of plays for RIP, but expect West to hold his own. On the other end of the floor, West is another excellent shooter who is vital to Cleveland’s floor spacing. He cannot quite match Williams’ accuracy, but few can. West knocked down a career-high 39.9% of his threes this season.
Small Forward: Tayshaun Prince vs. LeBron James. Tayshaun Prince is one of the better small forwards in the league. The only small forward who can be reasonably compared to LeBron James is Larry Bird. James averaged 25.8 points and 6.5 assists per game against Prince this season. For a normal player, that production would be outstanding, but for James, that constitutes a drop-off from his regular output. On the other end, Prince, who is usually a weapon in Detroit’s offense, should probably try to conserve energy and simply spot-up for his jumper. Normally it is a good idea to make opposing stars work on defense, but with James, “normal” gets thrown out the window.
Power Forward: Antonio McDyess vs. Anderson Varejao. McDyess was awesome the second half of the season. He will need to match his March production if the Pistons hope to be competitive. Varejao will start in place of injured former Piston Ben Wallace. While Varejao’s stats have remained relatively unchanged, he is playing smarter basketball and better defense than earlier in his career. McDyess has a better shot and is a better rebounder than Varejao, but Varejao is a much better help defender. Varejao is not much of an offensive threat, but he will make teams pay by finishing in the paint if opponents ignore him. On paper, this matchup appears to be a draw.
Center: Rasheed Wallace vs. Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Wallace’s gentle decline continued this season, as he posted his first season with a PER below the league average in more than a decade. While Wallace is clearly not the player he once was, his shooting stroke and his interior defense remain stellar. On the other end, Cleveland’s center has many of the same strengths and weaknesses that Wallace possesses. Like Wallace, Ilgaukas is a deadly outside shooter who protects the paint on defense. Both players lack the quickness to defend the pick and roll. As is the case with the power forwards, neither team should gain a significant edge via this matchup.
Backup Point Guard: Will Bynum vs. Daniel Gibson. The Pistons’ biggest edge in the series comes in the battle of backup point guards. Gibson is a nice outside shooter (career 41.2% on threes), but he brings little else to the table. Bynum is the exact opposite. He struggles to shoot the three, but he does everything else well. Bynum should be drive to blow past Gibson at will. If he does not need to help on LeBron, Bynum should also be able to shut down Gibson, thus creating a mismatch Detroit must exploit.
Backup Wing: Arron Afflalo vs. Wally Szczerbiak. Afflalo has greatly improved his shooting accuracy and is a rapidly improving defender. Szczerbiak is a deadly outside shooter (notice a pattern?) who brings little else to the table. This is another matchup that would favor the Pistons until one considers all of the open looks LeBron will create for Wally.
Backup Power Forward: Jason Maxiell vs. Darnell Jackson. Maxiell kills opponents on the offensive glass. He hurts his own team with his inability to control the defensive glass or defend taller players. Jackson saw minutes because Ben Wallace and J.J. Hickson were sidelined with injuries. The guess here is that Jackson winds up the ninth man in a competition for eight rotation spots in the playoffs.
Backup Center: Kwame Brown vs. Joe Smith. In the battle of former top picks, Smith will attempt to use his sweet stroke and veteran savvy to outplay his bigger, more athletic counterpart. Brown’s ability to defend the basket may prove useful, but his shortcomings on offense will keep him from playing extended minutes.
Series Prediction: I believe the Pistons will play well, but it is not going to matter against the Cavaliers. LeBron James is on a mission to win a championship and I do not see any team denying him in 2009. Defensively, Detroit lacks the athletes to shut down Cleveland. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s defense has the potential to dominate a Piston offense that struggled all season long.
In each of the first two games, I expect the Pistons to remain competitive early, only to watch Cleveland slowly build a lead, and then pull away in the fourth quarter. In game three, I see Detroit playing its best game of the playoffs as it attempts to extend the series. With that said, I don’t think Detroit’s best is enough to overtake Cleveland. Cleveland wins a close one in game three. The Cavs finish off the sweep with a blowout after Detroit mentally checks out before game four. I hope I’m wrong. Cavaliers in four.