LAST FRIDAY theDetroit Pistons were as content as any NBA team can be at this time of year.Not only had they reached the conference finals for the sixth straightseason—the longest such streak since Magic Johnson's run with the Los AngelesLakers from 1982 through '89—but they also had completed their second-roundseries more quickly than any rival, having finished off the Orlando Magic threedays earlier in five games. The playoff-savvy Pistons have learned to enjoythese respites, and so after their workout at The Palace of Auburn Hills, JoeDumars recounted all of his Eastern Conference finals with Detroit, first as aplayer and now as president of basketball operations (a total of 11). CoachFlip Saunders showed off photos of his 16-year-old twins performing ballet,Rachel and Kimberly captured in mid-leap ("Now, here are athletes," hesaid proudly) much like the famous silhouette of Michael Jordan predunk.
Lingering on thepractice court was forward Tayshaun Prince, who has had more to do withDetroit's playoff success this season than any other Piston. He has elevatedhis game since the regular season, averaging 16.0 points and 6.2 rebounds andshooting 56.2% from the field (second on the team in all three categories)through the first two rounds while playing the most minutes of any player onthe club. "I've been in a great situation here the first six years of mycareer," said Prince, who through Sunday had already played in morepostseason games (108) than any other player ever had in his first six seasons."When you're happy, everything else is going to take care ofitself."
The sight of arelaxed Prince, seated on the padded base of a basket stanchion, spoke to thePistons' general state of mind, which was in contrast to the high anxiety ofthe Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were still battling in theother conference semifinal. Two days later, in Game 7 at TD Banknorth Garden,Prince's counterpart on the Celtics, small forward Paul Pierce, would findhimself under a basket too—flat on his back, after having been sideswiped intoa TV cameraman by the Cavs' LeBron James and Sasha Pavlovic.
Pierce was midwaythrough the biggest game of his life, with 24 points shortly before halftime,but at that moment there was fear that he was done, that this foul would ruineverything for Boston. Then Pierce gathered himself up and limped to the freethrow line, hitting both shots to give his team a 12-point lead. Though a45-point effort from James kept Cleveland in the game, it was the 41-pointperformance by Pierce that carried the day. His two free throws with 7.9seconds left sealed Boston's 97--92 victory.
So what are we tomake of this Boston team that had entered the playoffs as a top-seeded power(66 regular-season wins) yet barely escaped seven-game series against theAtlanta Hawks and then the Cavaliers? Will the weaknesses exposed in the firsttwo rounds—chiefly, an inconsistent offense and a sudden inability to win onthe road—prove to be more costly against second-seeded Detroit? Or will winningtwo Game 7s give the Celtics more confidence and enough experience in thecrunch to knock off the Pistons?
THE ANSWERS wereto start coming on Tuesday, when Game 1 was scheduled in Boston, and thematchup that will most likely determine which team advances to the NBA Finalsis Prince versus Pierce. Prince, 28, is a versatile playmaker, and Pierce, 30,is the more celebrated scorer. Over the last year each has taken a step tobecome more like the other—Prince improving as a scorer, Pierce as adefender—though they have little in common physically: The 6'7", 235-poundPierce has the thick torso of a pole vaulter, while Prince (6'9", 215) isbuilt like the pole. Thus will the matchup come down to Pierce's strengthagainst Prince's length.
"Whenever[Prince] has success against those guys," says Dumars, referring to hisplayer's defensive battles against physically intimidating scorers such asPierce, "it's when he doesn't allow them to get their bodies on him. Whenthey're going at Tay and—boom!—there's body contact, I know they're going towin that play. Come back down again, and now Tayshaun keeps spacing, spacing,spacing, and they can't get the body on him, I know he's going to win thatplay."
On Sunday, Piercerestored aggressiveness and hierarchy to the beleaguered Celtics offense byconsistently driving to the basket through Cleveland's soft double teams anddrilling difficult fall-away jumpers when the Cavs came at him hard. Boston hadbeen in a scoring funk primarily because forward Kevin Garnett had supplantedPierce as the go-to scorer, when, in fact, the Celtics are most dangerous whenthe offense runs through KG as a playmaker and secondary scorer. Should thethird member of Boston's Big Three, guard Ray Allen (12.7 scoring average on38.5% shooting in the first two playoff rounds), have a Pierce-like return toform, the Celtics' attack would be back on track. "I don't worry about thefatigue," coach Doc Rivers says of his team's fully extended playoffs."Hell, these are conditioned athletes, they're not tired. Going throughthis thing twice has to be a positive to our team. It just has to."
AFTER BEING upsetin the conference finals each of the last two years, the Pistons appeared to beworn down and without inspiration, as if they knew each other too well. Dumarsand Saunders agreed that two things had to change: 1) They committed tofeaturing the younger guys on their bench, especially explosive third-yearforward Jason Maxiell and rookie guard Rodney Stuckey, to energize the team'splay and reduce the starters' minutes; and 2) they needed a strongerperformance from Prince, who was known mostly for his All-Defensive skills."At the beginning of the season I said to Tayshaun, 'You have to be the guywho raises your level of play, because you're that guy [among the starters] whohas the most room to grow,'" says Dumars. "In years past when we said,'Tayshaun, we need it,' he'd step up and do it. Now you don't even say anythingto him."
As one of thestarters who played fewer minutes during the regular season by design, Princeaveraged a four-year low of 13.2 points in helping the Pistons win 59 games andtheir fourth straight Central Division title. But his production increased inthe playoffs as he dominated important matchups against the Philadelphia 76ers'Andre Iguodala and the Magic's Hedo Turkoglu, snuffing out pivotal drives tothe basket by Turkoglu in the closing seconds of Games 4 and 5. Far moreimpressive was Prince's assertiveness when the ball came his way late in Game 4in Orlando, with the Pistons trailing by one and point guard Chauncey Billupssidelined by a strained right hamstring. "He is the best decision maker wehave," Dumars says of Prince. "When it ended up in his hands, I feltsomething good was going to come out of it." Prince drove into the paintand hit a delicate lefthanded runner for the victory.
When he arrived inDetroit three years ago, Saunders told Prince that he could be a smaller,quieter version of Garnett, whom Saunders had coached for 10 years inMinnesota. Now, as the emotional Garnett tries to lift the Celtics and Princemore subtly provides leadership, we'll see that Saunders is right.
This Prince willbe king. Detroit in seven.
Going through [a seventh game] twice HAS TO BE APOSITIVE to our team," says Celtics coach Rivers. "It just hasto."
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Photograph by John Biever
ONE ON ONE Pierce (34) saved Boston from elimination on Sunday, but can he do it again with Prince (above) guarding him?
[See caption above]
HOMEBODIES Pierce, Garnett and the Celtics are playoff-perfect in Boston (8--0) and perfectly awful (0--6) on the road.