Detroit and The Flash
Following the fiasco at The Palace on Nov. 19 and its resulting suspensions, there were two guarantees for the NBA’s Eastern Conference: Pistons versus Heat in the finals. The NBA rarely offers up surprises when it comes down to the final four, and this year was no different. Two easy dispatches – Indiana and Washington – stood as the only obstacles between the East’s best squads. Shaquille O’Neal and Dwayne Wade against the Detroit Pistons. After knocking off four teams with ease, Miami and Detroit will feed the gluttoned Fates, fat and content after a regular season drenched in predictability. Make no mistake about it, the Fates will only gain weight. For all the Heat hype and clever puns about opponents getting “burnt,” there are three guarantees left: Dwayne Wade will go off, Shaq will steal the show, and the Pistons will move on to the league finals. There will be no passing of the torch in the Eastern Conference – at least not this year.
The easiest trend to spot around playoff time is bad predictions. We saw it in the NFL where a merry-go-round of analysts draped unfounded credit on every upstart franchise with a good story. Peyton Manning’s gaudy numbers, Ben Rothlisberger’s hot start, Drew Brees’ rebirth. All were enticing enough lines to sway professional X’s and O’s men into falling for a Cinderella ending. In the end though, it was only the Patriots. Same colors, same quarterback, same game plan. No crazy endings, no topsy-turvy ride of the new poster boy beating the odds. Just a third ring on Bill Bellicheck’s right hand. Team over the individual, experience over novice, substance over style.Miami’s appeal is glamorous: second-year phenom, all-star celebrity acquisition, South Beach style. Detroit has a collection of solid players one championship removed from short-shorts and Bill Lambier. They’ve been here before, are going for a repeat and are nothing new. Naturally, there’s more intrigue in the Heat, so it’s only appropriate that Dwayne Wade’s nickname is “Flash.”But it won’t matter. It won’t matter that Miami cruised through the regular season going 59-23. It won’t matter that they swept their two opponents in the playoffs or the time off that resulted from such drubbings. Shaquille O’Neal is ailing, and with him at less than 100 percent, the Pistons can be expected to open up the floor. Even with the big man at full strength, the Pistons have proven they can beat him – and everyone else – just as they did on the road to last year’s championship.
While Shaq’s health will be seen as the biggest factor this series, the true line is that the Heat simply can’t play defense. Even while beating up the opposition throughout the regular season, Miami allowed 95 points per game. What’s worse, they played in a division anchored by the Atlanta Hawks and expansion Charlotte Bobcats; only one other team was over .500, and two were under .300. Detroit, on the other hand, had three opponents in their division finish over .500. It’s true, Dwayne Wade may be the most effective force in the entire playoffs, but the Pistons have proven they can bully squads that hinge on one or two players. Every member of the defending champions is an all-pro (awarded or not) while Miami has a bunch of role players. With Shaq at three-quarter strength, Detroit’s front line of Rasheed and Ben Wallace will wear down Udonis Haslem and Alonzo Mourning to the point where it becomes a showdown of the guards. Undoubtedly, Wade and Eddie Jones will come out firing, setting screens with the big men to spot Jones up for the three or send Wade crashing toward the hoop. The Pistons however, knowing they can play soft on Miami’s other players, will be chest-to-chest with Wade and Jones. Larry Brown, a consistently thorough coach, always seems to instill the love of defense into his players. Last year, the Pistons allowed on average just under 81 points a game. While the number ballooned to just under 90 this season, it’s a common symptom for returning champions to slack off early. In the past two series, scores hovered in the mid-80s, an area Detroit has displayed great comfort in.At 2-1 against the Heat this year, the most tightly knit unit in the league showed that they can control the tempo. In both victories, they kept a most potent offense under 80 points, an accomplishment harder to find than a long-range O’Neal jumper.
Most importantly though, a unit with five guys who feel they can beat you is a lot tougher than one with just two. When the games get down to the wire, all eyes in Miami will be on a couple pairs of hands, whereas the Pistons are dangerous from every angle. Anyone on the court can drop 20 points in a game, as well as give their defensive assignment a tougher-than-normal night.It won’t be an easy series for Detroit, but look for a win in six. If Shaq is in better shape than predicted, or Dwayne Wade consistently gets 30, it could go to seven. But don’t bet on it. Vail, Colorado
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.