PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference finals; Game 1.
Though Rick Carlisle led them to consecutive 50-win seasons, the Detroit Pistons felt they’d be better off with Larry Brown.
Now we’ll get to see if they were right.
Carlisle looks to prove they made the wrong move as his Indiana Pacers take on Brown and the Pistons in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals.
“It’s amazing that we’ll be facing him, isn’t it?” Detroit’s Richard Hamilton said of going against Carlisle. “The buildup is going to be unbelievable. We know we’ll have to be aggressive because we know that coach likes to grind.”
The Pistons gave up on Carlisle despite his very successful two-year tenure, which included two division titles, three playoff series wins and Coach of the Year honors in 2001-02. Detroit underwent three consecutive losing seasons before Carlisle took over.
“My memory’s programmed to last about as long as an egg timer,” Carlisle said. “I choose to remember the good things that happened, the opportunity and what that meant to me and my family. When it was over, it was about focusing positive energy on the next thing that was going to happen. I have not dwelled on it much at all.”
Though Carlisle helped turn around the team, the Pistons saw the opportunity to get Brown as their coach and took it. Brown coached the previous six seasons with Philadelphia.
“This series is about moving on to the NBA Finals, everything else is secondary,” said Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ president of basketball operations.
Brown will try to prevent Carlisle from doing something he could not do— bring Indiana to the NBA Finals. Brown spent four years as Pacers coach before leaving in 1997, having led them to the conference finals in 1994 and 1995 but never reaching the championship round.
He took Philadelphia that far in 2001, losing to the Lakers, and remains without an NBA title despite being considered one of the league’s top coaches.
“I don’t think (Carlisle) had any problems with the team, I just think Joe (Dumars) realized if you got a Hall of Famer like Larry Brown, and he’s available, that’s an opportunity you can’t miss,” Detroit’s Ben Wallace said.
O’Neal was struck on the left eye during Indiana’s series-clinching Game 6 win over Miami on Tuesday. He sat out practice Thursday, and may wear protective goggles for this contest.
“There’s no way I’m not going to play Saturday,” O’Neal said.
Wallace has been bothered throughout the playoffs by a sore foot, averaging 13.1 points and 7.7 rebounds.
In two meetings this season, Wallace held O’Neal to less than 20 points both times. Detroit’s only win in four matchups between the teams came in the most recent one on April 4, and the only one in which Wallace played. Indiana was held to a season-low 61 points.
Now Wallace hopes to help Detroit have a much better trip to the Eastern Conference finals this time, having been swept by New Jersey last year. The Pistons avenged that loss by defeating the Nets in this year’s semifinals, easily winning Game 7 90-69 on Thursday.
“We’re back to where we were last year. We need to take it one step further,” Ben Wallace said.
‘Big Ben’ may be asked to cover O’Neal if Rasheed Wallace’s foot is slowing him down. If not, Ben Wallace will be free to roam the paint to shut down the penetration of Ron Artest, Jamaal Tinsley and Al Harrington.
Artest, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, may be pitted against small forward Tayshaun Prince. That would seem to be a mismatch in favor of the Pacers at both ends.
However, Artest could end up being switched defensively to slow down Hamilton if 38-year-old Reggie Miller has trouble stopping the Pistons’ top scorer in the postseason.
Miller had been one of the few Pacers with a significant amount of postseason experience, considering the last three years the team was knocked out in the first round.
Indiana was happy to get a taste of truly intense, playoff basketball in the conference semifinals, winning a tight Game 6 over Miami. The Pacers, who are 5-0 at home this postseason and have won 13 straight overall at Conseco Fieldhouse, had swept Boston in the first round.
“The Miami series was a very good experience for all of our guys, especially going on the road and really finding out what playoff basketball beyond the first round is like on the road,” Carlisle said. “The fact that we were able to pull it back together and win in Game 6 bodes well, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee us anything as we move forward.”
This is Indiana’s first trip to the conference finals since 2000, when it beat New York in six games before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
The only time these teams have met in the postseason came in the first round in 1990, and the Pistons pulled off a three-game sweep en route to their second straight NBA championship.
This series continues Monday night in Indianapolis before moving to Detroit for Games 3 and 4.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Pistons - 3rd seed; beat Milwaukee Bucks 4-1, first round; beat New Jersey Nets 4-3, conference semifinals. Pacers - 1st seed; beat Boston Celtics 4-0, first round; beat Miami Heat 4-2, conference semifinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Pistons - Hamilton, 20.4 ppg; Ben Wallace, 13.9; Billups, 6.3 apg. Pacers - Artest, 21.0 ppg; O’Neal, 8.6 rpg; Tinsley, 5.9 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Pacers, 3-1. Neither team scored 90 points in any of the four games, and the loser averaged just 73. Hamilton shot 9-of-16 from the field for 24 points in the Pistons’ only win, and averaged 12.7 points on 31 percent shooting in the other three meetings. O’Neal averaged 19.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in the series, while Artest added 17.3 points per contest. Billups was held to 10.5 points per game on 22 percent shooting.