PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference first round; Game 1.
Maybe the Orlando Magic’s only chance to advance past the first round will be for the NBA’s leading scorer to dominate the league’s best defense.
Though McGrady’s team has some injury concerns of its own, the biggest health issue entering this matchup involves Wallace.
The All-Star center has missed the last two weeks with a sprained medial collateral ligament, and the Pistons remain uncertain if he’ll be ready for Game 1. Wallace finished the regular season as the league’s top rebounder and second-leading shot blocker.
“It ain’t where I expected it to be, but it’s getting better,” Wallace said Saturday of his injured knee. “I know I can go out there, but I’m not going to go out there if I can’t play the way I’m capable of playing. … I can do some things, but I still can’t get down and be aggressive the way I want.”
Wallace is a key to restricting opposing players’ penetration to the basket, part of the reason why the Pistons allowed a league-low 87.7 points per game.
“Everything with Detroit is really predicated on how well they play defense,” McGrady said.
The MVP candidate averaged an NBA-best 32.1 points and led the team in assists, accounting for so much of Orlando’s offense with ex-Piston All-Star Grant Hill again missing most of the season due to injury.
McGrady scored 46 points on 14-of-26 shooting as Orlando won the first meeting of the season with Detroit on Christmas Day. The superstar swingman averaged 27.5 points and shot just 38 percent (19-for-50) in the other two matchups as the Pistons won both by double digits.
The job of slowing down McGrady will often be left to small forward Michael Curry.
“When we get into trouble against Tracy is when we let him get 3-point shots in transition and when we put him on the free-throw line,” Curry said. “When we don’t do those things, our team defense can contain him somewhat. We also need to contain him from making their role players very good players.
“If we can do those things, we have a great chance of having success in the series.”
One of the role players to which Curry was referring is Pat Garrity, who is expected to play in Game 1 despite sitting out the season finale due to a bruised pelvis that has bothered him all month. Garrity was sixth in the league with 161 3-pointers made.
Rookie forward Drew Gooden missed time earlier this month with a sprained toe and knee tendinitis, but returned to play the final two games of the season. Gooden served as a capable complement to McGrady after being acquired from Memphis at the trade deadline, averaging 13.6 points and 8.5 rebounds in 19 games with the Magic.
The top option on offense for Detroit is Richard Hamilton, who averaged 26 points on 58 percent shooting in the three meetings with Orlando.
It was Hamilton’s starting backcourt mate, however, that may have been an even bigger reason why the Pistons finished with the best record in the East.
In his first season with Detroit, Chauncey Billups often came through with clutch baskets that lifted the team to narrow victories. Billups, among the league’s top 3-point threats, averaged a career-high 16.2 points.
He’ll try to help hand Orlando its sixth first-round exit in as many trips to the postseason since 1996, when it reached the conference finals.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Magic - 7th seed. Pistons - 2nd seed.
TEAM LEADERS: Magic - McGrady, 32.1 ppg and 5.5 apg; McGrady and Gooden, 6.5 rpg. Pistons - Hamilton, 19.7 ppg; Wallace, 15.4 rpg; Billups, 3.9 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Pistons, 2-1. Detroit never trailed in the second half of the only game at The Palace of Auburn Hills, winning 98-88 on Feb. 13 in the most recent meeting. The Magic had a 49-35 rebounding edge in their lone win, and the Pistons had a combined plus-18 advantage on the boards in their two victories.