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Answering the Bell

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ASK STEVE
Question
(from Tom Bailey of Fort Wayne, Ind.)

Why have the Pistons gone away from their offensive set where Richard Hamilton runs off of the double-baseline screens? Say what you want about Flip Saunders or the boring offensive sets of Larry Brown, but the Pistons have stopped running their offense through the two guard and made it a team bricklaying contest. I would not be surprised that once Detroit is ousted in this round that Flip Saunders will be, too. Your thoughts?
Answer
Tom, you're absolutely right, the Pistons have gotten away from the dynamic offense they displayed all season. Detroit was very efficient with its ball movement this season, passing for 24 assists per game while turning the ball over fewer than 11 times a night. In the last two games of the Miami series, the Pistons have totaled 25 assists and 24 turnovers. This is a trend that has been developing ever since the beginning of the Cleveland series. Detroit is just not the same team, and a big part of it is the over-dribbling, one-on-one style it is playing. The Heat have done a nice job of rotating over to Rip Hamilton on the screens you talked about, but that's to be expected. Every team's strategy in defending Detroit begins with the Hamilton curl play. But when defenses commit to stopping Hamilton, the Pistons' counter play is to hit Rasheed Wallace – who's the screener – either on a roll for a dunk or on a pop for a jumper. Wallace, though, has not been the same player since spraining his ankle against the Cavaliers. And with Detroit struggling offensively, it no longer is able to rely on its defense, which comes and goes. All in all, I think the Pistons have lost a lot of confidence at both ends of the floor, and it appears they're going to lose this series. Still, I don't know how Joe Dumars would fire Flip Saunders. He signed a five-year deal, he won 64 games and he did a terrific job all season. How could they fire him for one bad postseason? Besides, who would they hire if they unloaded Saunders? I'd be shocked if he wasn't back next season.
PHOENIX – It may not have been a Willis Reed moment when Raja Bell jogged onto the US Airways Center floor for the starting lineups, but the result was similar.

Bell – who wears Reed's old No. 19, ironically enough – did a pretty good impersonation of Reed's famous entrance into Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. In that game, Reed startled a Madison Square Garden crowd by emerging from the locker room despite an injured leg, ran onto the floor for the starting lineups and immediately hit two jump shots to spark the Knicks to a championship-clinching win over the Lakers.

For Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, Bell was supposed to be inactive due to his calf injury, but he also emerged from the locker room, made his first two shots and provided the spark that got the Phoenix Suns off to a good start in their 106-86 rout of the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday.

Unlike in Game 3, when Phoenix didn't make a single steal and was beaten to almost every loose ball by the Mavericks, the Suns were the aggressor. With Bell leading the way, Phoenix played with the kind of aggressiveness and passion that it has to have in order to generate the up-tempo pace it wants.

Bell drew an early charge from Josh Howard, inspiring the crowd and his teammates, and made a couple of buckets off the dribble. He looked spry and played without a limp until the final quarter, when he exited the game after tweaking his injured calf.

Undoubtedly, Bell will be sore on Wednesday, and only time will tell if he'll be ready to go for Game 5 on Thursday. But for one night, he rejuvenated his teammates and helped get the Suns back into the series, which is now tied at 2-2.

Phoenix forced 14 Dallas turnovers, grabbed nine offensive boards and blocked eight shots. As lifeless as the Suns were in Game 3, they played with a mean streak in Game 4 and were led by their emotional leader, Bell. As coach Mike D'Antoni said before the game, "It's amazing how fast warriors heal."

SUB OF THE NIGHT

Leandro Barbosa – After struggling through the first two games of the series and shooting a combined 4-for-22, Barbosa showed signs of escaping his slump with a 17-point, 6-for-14 night in Game 3. In Game 4, however, Barbosa was at his explosive best. He made 10 of 13 shots and scored 24 points, giving Phoenix a huge lift off the bench. Barbosa appeared much more comfortable playing as a reserve, as Bell's presence in the starting lineup put him back in his comfort zone, and got a couple of early layups to go, made a trip to the free-throw line and buried a pull-up jumper on the break. Once he had his confidence back, the floodgates opened and his shot was dead-on. His play helped the Suns' bench put up 36 points after scoring a combined 27 the first three games.

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE NIGHT

Dirk Nowitzki – The Mavs' superstar had his first bad game of the playoffs, scoring only 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting. I guess you could say Dirk was due for a bad game – after all, he had scored 20 or more points in a remarkable 42 consecutive games. Two early fouls put Nowitzki on the bench, and he never was able to get his rhythm. Tim Thomas and Shawn Marion took turns covering Nowitzki, and anytime he ended up with a smaller man on him following a switch, the Suns actively double teamed him. It was the most aggressive defense Nowitzki has seen from Phoenix all series, and he struggled all night.

STAT OF THE NIGHT

21 and 7 – Those were the respective assist and turnover numbers for Phoenix in Game 4. For the season, the Suns led the NBA in assists at almost 27 per game, and their 13 turnovers a night was the fourth-lowest average in the league. Phoenix is at its best when it plays fast, shoots well and shares the ball. When the Suns get too one-on-one oriented, as they did in Game 3, the tempo slows down and they make mistakes. In that game, Phoenix passed for only 13 assists and committed 12 turnovers. Game 4 epitomized the Suns: They were active and energetic, they played a frenetic yet efficient style and they moved the ball with precision.

VIEWERS GUIDE FOR WEDNESDAY

Game 5: Miami Heat at Detroit Pistons – The Pistons appear to be falling apart. Ben Wallace came out and publicly questioned Flip Saunders' coaching ability, pointing out that Detroit spends much more time working on its offensive game than its defense. The Pistons did lose their defensive edge some this season as they became a more productive offensive unit, but they appeared to be able to turn it on when needed. Still, this is no time for Wallace to run to the press with his complaints. Anything he wanted to say should have been said behind closed doors, but by going public with his complaints, Wallace exposed the fact that the Pistons have lost their edge, their trust and their unity. The Heat, meanwhile, continue to build momentum as they head toward the first Finals berth in franchise history. Miami is just one win away from climbing that mountain, and with Dwyane Wade playing at an incredibly high level, the Heat appear to be on their way. Do the Pistons have one last stand to put up? Can they win Game 5 and put the pressure on Miami to close out the series at home? We'll see. But Wallace's comments would appear to indicate that this is not a team ready to fight its way out of a 3-1 hole.