Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Trying to distill a playoff series preview down to two or three key elements is generally a foolhardy endeavor, especially for a matchup as compelling as the Pistons versus the Heat. Injuries, adjustments, and officiating (in that order) are three wild cards that can turn an initially prescient analysis logy and anachronistic. That said, I think that the longer Detroit is forced to utilize Antonio McDyess in close games, the less chance the Pistons have of besting Miami.

Everyone talks about Detroit's rugged defense, which is indeed a beautifully synchronized and synergistic display of sweat equity. It's pretty much the same bunch that dismantled Shaq and the Lakers in last year's championship series. But this season, Shaq is much lighter and quicker, hungrier in more ways than one. And his supporting cast in Miami is far more cohesive, committed, and well-defined than his rancid rival Kobe and the aging ring prospectors Malone and Payton that he left behind in L.A.

The biggest upgrade between the '04 Lakers and '05 Heat is at power forward. Last year, injuries to Malone left the Lakers with woeful Slava Medvedenko or (very briefly) Brian Cook playing the 4, or the undersized Devean George or Luke Walton when they went small. That's the main reason why the Pistons overwhelmed L.A. on the glass by plus-nine rebounds per game. By contrast, the Heat have the criminally underrated Udonis Haslem, a rebounding terror who excels at box-outs, tips, and chasing down loose balls. That's a potentially bad match-up for Pistons power forward Rasheed Wallace, who'd rather launch baseline jumpers on one end and move in for weakside blocks on the other instead of doing the dirty work down low. A huge factor in this series will be whether or not 'Sheed can hit that jumper, or, failing that, joust with Haslem near the hoop. If not, coach Larry Brown will have to call on the less mobile but more low-post oriented McDyess.

But McDyess may already be logging minutes for Ben Wallace, the undersized center who will be draw the unenviable task of containing Shaq. Pistons fans who want to take solace in the job Detroit did on Shaq last season need to be reminded that the best defense against the Big Aristotle in the '04 Finals was Kobe Bryant's ego. When Kobe deigned to get Shaq the ball, the big fella shot 63 percent. Kobe, who shot 38 percent, launched 29 more attempts in the five-game series. I think Wallace is a stellar defender (although undeserving of his multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards), but unless Shaq's thigh bruise is pretty severe, he's going to need lots of help during this series. And Eldon Campbell isn't going to cut it. Wallace's reputation will help him with officials, which is always a crucial consideration where Shaq is concerned, and if the whistles go against Shaq for charges, it obviously favors the Pistons. Shaq's backup, Alonzo Mourning, was a nice pickup for Miami, but at this stage of his career, 'Zo is no better than a poor man's Ben Wallace.

Out on the perimeter, it will be interesting to see how much and how effectively Tayshaun Prince guards the whirlwind Dwyane Wade. Although he's averaging more than five turnovers a game thus far in the playoffs, Wade's ball-handling and decision-making are superior to Kobe's, and he's far more effective without the ball. If the Pistons decide to leave Prince on Eddie Jones, Wade is far too strong for Rip Hamilton, and will tax Chauncey Billups enough to hinder Billups' ability to run the offense at the other end of the court.

The Heat are not without some matchup problems of their own, however. Hamilton's nonstop motion and clutch shooting makes him the rightful heir to Reggie Miller's legacy, and a nightmare to defend. Eddie Jones isn't young enough, Damon James won't be sufficiently dedicated to the task, and you don't want Wade wasting all his calories bouncing off the bruises picks the Pistons will deploy to free Rip for jumpers. Nothing will come easily for either team in this series, but Hamilton and Shaq should both be fairly reliable sources of offense. But can 'Sheed hit that jumper at better than 40 percent? Can Detroit create scoring opportunities in the paint enough to put Shaq, 'Zo, and Haslem in foul trouble? If not, they need to generate turnovers and transition baskets.

People who like the Pistons in this series tend to discount some lackluster efforts against Indiana, and believe they will rise to the challenge. They also think Miami, and especially Shaq, who sat out the last two games against Washington, will be rusty. Maybe so. But unless the Wallaces are performing the roles capably enough to keep McDyess on the bench, I don't see how they solve the Heat's better balanced ballclub. It could last anywhere between five and seven games. I'll split the difference.

Miami in 6.

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