PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference finals; series tied 2-2.
Rick Carlisle made a big adjustment. Now it’s time for his replacement’s response.
It’s hard to say what Larry Brown will change, but he certainly will be looking for his team’s interior defense to get back in top form as the Detroit Pistons take on the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Carlisle, in his third season as an NBA head coach and first with the Pacers after being fired by the Pistons, outcoached his Hall of Fame counterpart Friday as Indiana evened this best-of-seven series at 2-2.
Not known for being flexible or going far off his usual gameplan, Carlisle made a very surprising move in Game 4 by starting little-used forward Austin Croshere instead of center Jeff Foster. That move, designed to boost Indiana’s struggling offense, paid dividends as Croshere scored 14 points in an 83-68 victory.
“We weren’t ready to play and that’s on me,” said Brown, hired last summer after Carlisle was fired following two 50-win seasons in Detroit. “They were better prepared and better coached. I have to do a better job.”
Croshere made his first start in two years and provided a much-needed extra option offensively for a team that shot below 35 percent from the field in its previous four games. The sixth-year Providence alumnus had averaged only five points this season and didn’t even play in three of Indiana’s first 13 playoff games.
“It was a little bit of a gamble because defensively you don’t get the same type of activity that you do with Foster, but Austin changed the game,” Carlisle said. “I just thought it was a gamble worth taking. It’s certainly not a cure-all.”
Having another capable perimeter scorer on the floor in the 6-foot-10 Croshere did not allow the Pistons to crowd the lane. That opened things up for many of the Pacers as Indiana’s starting frontcourt outscored Detroit’s 46-11.
“My biggest problem was, we couldn’t guard anybody up front and that opened it up for anybody,” Brown said.
Ron Artest had his best game of the series with 20 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Reggie Miller scored 15 points and Jermaine O’Neal added 12 to go with his 13 boards despite spraining his left knee during the win. O’Neal is expected to start Game 5.
Artest breaking through was a very encouraging sign for Indiana. The brash forward made 8-of-19 from the field after averaging 14.3 points and shooting 26 percent in the first three games.
“Sometimes you have to make changes to win, that’s what makes good coaches,” Artest said.
If Croshere starts again, Brown will be ready for it. He’ll also have to make sure his team has recovered from a poor effort at both ends of the floor, resulting in a rare smattering of boos from its home crowd.
“What our guys have to remember is the pressure’s not on them, the pressure’s on Detroit,” Carlisle said. “Their whole season is made or broken on whether they go to the finals.”
The Pistons did not look like a team desperate to reach the NBA Finals. They had just four blocks—15 fewer than when they fell one short of a playoff record earlier in the series—and had four steals after averaging nearly seven over the first three games.
They let Indiana shoot 57.9 percent in the first quarter to fall behind 29-17, and trailed by double digits for most of the second half.
Richard Hamilton remains the biggest offensive threat for Detroit, scoring at least 20 points in six straight games. Chauncey Billups added 21 points Friday and Rasheed Wallace had 10 points and 10 rebounds, but the duo combined to go just 10-of-31 from the field.
“We had a 2-1 lead and we didn’t come out and play the way that we’re capable of playing,” Hamilton said. “We were pretty much strangers and didn’t share the ball early, and they really capitalized on that. I think we’ll play better now that the series is 2-2. It’s a lot more pressure and a lot more fun.”
Game 6 is Tuesday night in Indianapolis.
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, 20.8 ppg; Ben Wallace, 14.5 rpg; Billups, 6.2 apg. Pacers - O’Neal, 19.7 ppg and 9.3 rpg; Tinsley, 5.3 apg.