NBA Finals Preview

The most competitive championship matchup in over a decade will go the seven-game distance.

I was wrong about ?Sheed. I thought Miami's Udonis Haslem would frustrate his offense in the paint, box him out of precious rebounds, and compel him to launch the ill-advised outside jumpers he's prone to jacking up anyway. It was a crucial match-up, and the primary reason I called the Heat to win the Eastern Conference Finals. But Rasheed Wallace, the hot-tempered dude with the super-cool tats and the quarter-sized splotch of white hair near the top of his otherwise ebony noggin, proved me wrong about everything but the match-up being crucial.

When the Detroit Pistons acquired ?Sheed for four players and a number-one draft pick in February 2004, he was the missing link that transformed the team into NBA Champions. Infamous for his tantrums, he began channeling his intensity into teamwork, tailoring his versatile skills to fit coach Larry Brown's unselfish, defensive-oriented system. And while he is still prone to popping off, drawing technical fouls and occasionally guaranteeing wins in comments to the media, he's obviously part of the fierce inner circle of personalities at the core of the Pistons, much loved and thriving because of it. This year, Detroit is 8-0 in the playoffs when ?Sheed scores 20 points or better.

It happened in three of the four wins required to beat the Heat, all of them absolutely vital to the momentum and outcome of the series. In Game One, ?Sheed's 20 points led the Pistons in scoring and enabled them to temporarily steal homecourt advantage. In Game Four, he racked up another 20, in just 22 minutes, to help even the series instead of forcing Detroit to go back to Miami down three games to one. And, after Haslem made me look smart by dominating his matchup with ?Sheed in Games Five and Six, Wallace was arguably the MVP of the deciding Game Seven, providing a game-turning tip-in and two clutch free throws in crunch time en route to another 20-point outing.

So now Detroit and ?Sheed are back in the NBA Finals, encountering the San Antonio Spurs in what should be the most competitive championship series in more than a decade. Unlike the previous round, where I felt fairly confident about San Antonio and Miami, I wouldn't be surprised to see either team emerge victorious, and think the series will go the entire seven games. Here are some of the key elements I'll be watching.

Perhaps the biggest variable is how much and how effectively each club resorts to crossover defensive assignments. The offenses of both teams are ignited by their shooting guards, while the perimeter stoppers for both teams are their small forwards. How much the Pistons' Tayshaun Prince is assigned to guard Manu Ginobili, and how often the Spurs' Bruce Bowen is put on Rip Hamilton will dictate how both teams attack the basket.

Both Ginobili and Hamilton are energizer bunnies who never stop running, and it would be fascinating to watch them engage in an endurance test by strictly guarding each other. That won't happen for a variety of reasons. Ginobili is better than Hamilton at penetrating to the hoop off the dribble, plays bigger than Hamilton (although at 6-7, Hamilton is an inch taller), loves to draw contact, and is a momentum generator who, as much as possible, needs to be nipped in the bud. The Pistons' best response is guarding him with Prince, who is a supple 6-9 with a huge wingspan, and is a maestro at deterring penetration without drawing the foul.

At the other end, Hamilton utilizes screens along the baseline and the elbows of the foul line for spot-up, mid-range jumpers that are the most reliable staple of the Pistons offense. Bowen is a highly physical?many say dirty?defender who impedes motion as much as possible and fights through and weaves around picks with grit and guile. But given how many picks are set for Rip, and how quickly he can catch and shoot, I don't think Bowen is as much of a defensive upgrade over Ginobili as Prince is over Hamilton in this series. Furthermore, with Bowen (whose primary offensive weapon is an three-pointer from the weak side) in the game, Hamilton can essentially conserve his energy by guarding him when Detroit is on defense. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Spurs leave Ginobili on Hamilton more than vice versa, and utilize Robert Horry and Brent Barry to expose mismatches with Hamilton. For the same reason, I suspect Lindsay Hunter will be used against Ginobili in the same way that he was called upon to deter Miami's Dwyane Wade in the conference finals.

The bottom line: Bowen will be less of a factor than most people anticipate. Horry and Barry will burn Detroit enough to pry Prince off of Ginobelli more often than the Pistons prefer. Hamilton will score plenty no matter who is guarding him. But because San Antonio is so much quicker than Miami on interior defense and in response to the pick and roll, Hamilton won't come close to averaging seven assists per game, as he did in the last series.

Meanwhile, it is also likely that defensive-oriented starting centers Ben Wallace and Nazr Mohammed will often be called upon to guard their opponents' more offensively gifted power forwards, Tim Duncan and Rasheed Wallace. One might imagine that Ben Wallace, the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year this season, guarding the superstar Duncan would be a marquee match-up. But this is precisely where I think San Antonio has an marked advantage, provided Duncan dishes to his teammates as effectively as Shaq did in the previous series.

It's odd to me that Duncan has this squeaky-clean reputation, when he's one of the biggest whiners in the league with the officials, and can occasionally be a bit of a ball-hog, especially since he's surrounded by Ginobeili, point guard Tony Parker, and deadly long-range shooters like Horry and Barry. If Ben Wallace switches on Duncan, it will be interesting to see how often the "Big Fundamental" engineers the best possible shot, either for himself or his teammates. Most often, he should move the ball around, because after getting steamrolled by Shaq for seven games, Ben Wallace is going to regard Duncan's butt-pushing low-post manuvers as a vacation. (As always, the caveat to any analysis or predictions about low-post matchups is what the refs are calling for fouls. Ben and Rasheed Wallace have to remember that more contact is allowed on both sides when Shaq is playing, and bodying Duncan in the same manner is likely to draw a whistle.)

Meanwhile, if ?Sheed is hitting his outside shot, the Spurs could be in big trouble. San Antonio would love to save Duncan's energy by having him guard the offensively indifferent (if marginally improved) scorer Ben Wallace, leaving Mohammed to contend with Rasheed. But if ?Sheed is nailing that three-pointer, especially trailing the fast break as the Spurs scramble to defend down low, Mohammed can't hang with him. Consequently, Duncan either chases him or becomes the de facto center because Horry has been assigned the task. It is entirely possible that the Pistons will continue to be unbeaten in playoff games where ?Sheed gets 20 or better this year.

Which brings us to the point guard matchup, which, as every analyst has already pointed out, pits the physicality of Chauncey Billups against the quickness of Tony Parker. I'd argue that a bigger distinction between the two is crunch-time confidence. Billups earned the Finals MVP award last year and has embraced the "Mr. Big Shot" moniker that has subsequently been affixed to him. The four free throws he made to ice the Miami series in Game Seven didn't even graze the iron. Parker is much more skitterish, mentally as well as physically. Like most of his teammates, he's not reliable at the free throw line, and perhaps even less so with the game in the balance. On the other hand, if he's allowed to get into a rhythm and his confidence soars, he'll generate a passel of fouls throughout the Pistons lineup and torment Detroit with his ingenuity and ability to finish in the paint.

Bottom line: San Antonio's chances of winning will rise and fall with Duncan's assist total and Parker's point total, although Rasheed's point total will be an even larger factor on the outcome. Billups will abuse Parker's defense more with pull-up jumpers than post-ups in the low block.

Finally, I don't think San Antonio can win this series without pulling off a nip-and-tuck victory somewhere along the way. As mentally tough as the Spurs have been this year, Detroit has the swagger and galvanizing sense of personal security that accrues to a tempered champion. They will not fold, they will have to be vanquished. And at some point that means the Spurs will have to hit their free throws or make their stops or convert their sliver of a chance at the precise moment when failure to do so spells defeat.

That's how close I think this series will be. And, on the strength of Duncan's good judgment, Ginobeili's kamikaze acrobatics, a pinch of Robert Horry, and a naked hunch, I'll call the Spurs in 7.

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