Monday, May 5, 2008

Thoughts on Round 2: Pistons vs. Magic

And it started out so well, too.

Okay, I'm not willing to back down from my prediction that this will be a tough series that will go 6 or 7 games.

But the hand is shaking, as it were.

Ben Q. thinks Hedo shouldn't have thrown that one down.

I cannot disagree more. But we'll come back to that.

Let's get some basic things out of the way so that we can sort this out and make it look a bit clearer.

1. Dwight Howard will not have that bad of a game again, bruise or no bruise. It was predictable that he would have a back-to-earth game. After all, the jump from the defensive intensity of the Raptors to the Pistons is approximately equivalent to jumping from Glass Joe to M. Bison. The Pistons caught him off guard, and his youth and inexperience caught up with him. The difference between last year and this year is his ability to overcome the shellshock with how he's developed and with the sheer freakish athleticism he's managed to hone.

2. The Magic may very well shoot that badly from the arc again. I hoped against hope that Jameer would be able to continue his reign from three point land. And I'm sure Lewis will get hot for 1 to 4 games in this series from downtown. But the Pistons made one clear statement in Game 1, and it had nothing to do with Superman or playing physical. It was "You can beat us with anyone you want, except for your guards." They're betting the rest of the Magic can't overcome a defensive assault on their biggest element, the three point shooters. So the Magic have two options. They can keep trying to catch a spark in the backcourt against a defensive rotation that will worry less and less about closing on the interior as their confidence swells. I like the fact that Van Gundy gave Reddick some garbage time. Just let him get some run. Just in case. But all in all, this is a disastrously risky proposition. What's their other option? Glad you asked.

This brings us full circle back to the discussion surrounding Mr. Most Improved Player himself, Hedo Turkoglu. Ben Q. thinks Hedo's dunk was what did the Magic in, rousing the Pistons from their slumber and sparking their 19-3 run to put the game in a stranglehold. I disagree. If you look at the Pistons body language after that dunk, it was "Hell. These guys came ready to fight." The Pistons gathered themselves and came out from the timeout in full flurry mode. And that was that.

There are two ways of approaching this. One is to try and lull the Pistons to sleep, to let them put cruise control on while you quietly slip by them without a sound, letting them focus on what they're doing wrong. This is a pretty sound strategy if you have a 3-1 lead in a series as a massive underdog. Neither of those conditions apply here. You have another option.

The Pistons are a team of flurry punchers. They'll hit you with concentrated offensive spurts combined with intense defensive possessions that rock you back on your heels. If you go to the ropes, if you cover up to protect your head, it's only going to spur them on. You have to weather it. The Magic need to take everything that the Pistons can give them, and immediately swing back at them each shot they get. I know this sounds like a simple strategy, but it's not.

There are times to work your offense. Kick it to Dwight down low. If the double comes, try and get a 1-2 pass sequence for an open perimeter shot. But in this scenario, you're only spilling blood in the shark's water, so to speak. You have to immediately combat each big bucket they hit with a counter. Just keep slugging, instead of settling back and trying to run your offense, and eventually the Pistons will start grumbling like a wild animal that gets bored with fighting something that keeps fighting back. Then you can run your offense. But you have to survive that flurry and still look like you want more.

That brings us back to Hedo. Hedo Turkoglu is the pendulum for this series. He led all Magic scorers with 18, on 50% shooting. Pretty good right? Wrong. Turkoglu is going to need to score 23+ per game in order for the Magic to have any shot. The Pistons are going to do what they can to frustrate him with doubles and pushing him away from the basket. He just needs to push back. If that means Howard gets fewer touches, then so be it. Because if you force the defense to start keying in on Turkoglu? That means Big Beastly Jesus is lurking in the deep waters of the paint, waiting for the lob or offensive rebound.

But if Turkoglu settles back, if he tries to get his teammates involved, if he doesn't go Nova, essentially, the Magic are sunk. Once you get the series on your terms, then you can start going to your offense and controlling the pace. But right now, the Pistons are awake, and ready to unload with the uppercut combos and body blows. The Magic's only shot in a series against this many capable star veterans is to ask after each cut to the brow, "Is that all you got?"

For the Pistons, this one comes down to Hamilton. He's starting to get that look in his eye. Ornery. Dangerous. Streaky. He's ready to put the lights out and he loves doing it on this stage. I'm not sure if the Pistons can be beat when Hamilton plays smart, accurate ball on both ends of the floor.

Keep the faith.

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