Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Boston Celtics 89, Detroit Pistons 81 

There was a plan to format this post with your typical intro, congratulating a deserving Boston team while easing slowly into the rant about why the Pistons blew another one, but it's a Saturday and I already had to watch this game under unorthodox conditions, so let's get right to what counts, OK?

I had the Pistons winning in six, Skeets had the Pistons winning in six, and while I don't want to put words in his mouth, I don't think either of us really expected the Pistons to win this thing.

It's just the thing you say, because you know Detroit has it in them to win a championship, and you always have to account for that even though you also know that the team will make enough stupid mistakes (be they obvious or subtle) along the way to negate whatever talent or personnel advantages they might have.

I'm not going to bust out the laundry list, but you probably have a clear memory of Rasheed Wallace - one technical away from being suspended out of a potential Game 7 - fist-pumping out of frustration and yelling so loudly in disagreement with a Bennett Salvatore call that a court mic some 40 feet away picked up his bluster. That's a guy that wants to win?

(ESPN's Mark Jackson, after Salvatore told Rasheed to can it: "take heed to the message." The guy's been in the league since 1995. He's 33. You think he's going to change now? Last time the Pistons were stuck in a 3-2 hole in the Conference finals, Wallace got himself ejected. You think he's going to finally get it, this late in the game?)

(Salvatore called a ridiculously-bad game, by the way.)

Listen, there's a difference between being competitive, and wanting to win. Being competitive means loudly protesting a call that doesn't go your way, or fouling Paul Pierce with Boston in the penalty and 90 seconds left in the game because he'd beaten you to the ball.

Wanting to win means you clam up, and play smart, especially in Salvatore's (one of the quickest whistles in the NBA) presence. Wanting to win means conceding defeat in one area (Pierce beating you to the ball) while steeling yourself for a defensive possession that could make or break your championship hopes. Never confuse the two. It will have you losing in the Conference finals three years in a row.

We talk about the "little things" as if they're some sort of intangible batch of goodness that separates good teams from great, and while the last part of that statement is true, you can see what the little things are. They're tangible. Detroit falls short in an area they should dominate in. On the flip side, Boston may not be the most talented offensive team out there, but they execute.

And a half-second worth of screwing up (say you flub your first left-handed dribble coming over the top of a guard-around screen, or don't make the perfect pass to an open Ray Allen), means the difference between a trip to the free throw line or open jumper, or Rajon Rondo having to dive for a loose ball as it crosses the half-court line, only to see Kevin Garnett have to launch a three-pointer with the shot clock at near-nil.

The Celtics, though they screw up at times, still execute so well, even against a Detroit team that was running double-teams at anyone not named "Rajon." You see that "89 points" at the end of the game and think that this team doesn't give two wits about offense, but they do, and they work. Boston kept up that focus on nearly every possession on Friday night. Detroit did not.

And if it seems like nit-picking, well, it is. The margin for error at this stage is so small that any letdown, any area where you fall short, or any moderately-sized misstep means so damn much. And Detroit, over the last few years, just hasn't had it in them to play the near-perfect game. And that's why we rail against them, because Boston had it in them. Los Angeles did, too, and so did the Spurs in spite of fading in five games.

I don't know what will happen from here on out. Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry were chortling over Flip Saunders' coaching future (losing a job is always hilarious, guys), but what is Saunders doing wrong here?

What more can he tell his players? At some point, it has to be on the people with the ball in their hands, or the guys that are in charge of defending shooters, getting the rebound, and executing the plays that they've been running since October of 2005. I mean, if you're not motivated enough to play a full 48 minutes in a game like this (or Game 6 in 2007, or 2006), then what can motivate you? Knute Rockne couldn't get through to these knuckleheads.

OK, they're not all knuckleheads. Not even close. Tayshaun Prince took a lot of heat for making less than a third of his shots in this series, but he's not a lights-out shooter. He would be well served to spend a summer making the next step from "streaky" to "spot-on," but unless he has a mismatch advantage offensively, the points aren't going to be there for him. And against the sturdy Paul Pierce, that just wasn't happening in this series.

Chauncey Billups played hurt at the beginning of this series, and played brilliantly in Game 6. He got to the line ten times (making eight) didn't turn the ball over in 41 frantic minutes, scored 29 points, and attacked. That said, a pair of missed open jumpers midway through the fourth quarter allowed Boston back in this game. Jason Maxiell attacked as well, a little too much, and hurt his team.

I love watching Maxiell, and fair-weather fans take to him because he dunks a lot and throws back shots sometimes, but he killed Detroit defensively all series long. Mark Jackson continued to balk whenever Saunders chose Theo Ratliff over Maxiell, but the stats back up exactly what I saw in this game: the Pistons were +7 with Ratliff on the floor in Game 6, and -9 with Maxiell on the court.

Lest you think I'm crediting Detroit with the loss more than Boston with the win, let me disabuse you of that notion. James Posey missed three of his four looks from the field in 20 minutes, but he played brilliant defensive basketball. After watching Posey get abused by the too-quick Richard Hamilton all series, it would seem ridiculous to switch James onto an even quicker position in point guard, but it was a masterstroke for the Boston coaching staff to sic Posey on Chauncey Billups in Game 6.

Kendrick Perkins went from a superb rebounding night in Game 5 to a sub-par run in Game 6 (just seven rebounds in almost 42 minutes), but his help defense was solid, and he finished with two steals and three blocks along with seven points. Ray Allen (17 points on 12 shots) brought the needed offensive touch in the first half, and Rajon Rondo, though his shot was off (11 points on 13 shots), may have played his savviest game of the series.

Kevin Garnett, hamstrung by foul trouble, still dominated Rasheed Wallace (2-12 shooting, four points, three turnovers, five fouls) and finished with 16 and seven rebounds, his 7-16 shooting night distorted by a few bailout jumpers he had to attempt.

But, as it's been since the lockout year, this was Paul Pierce's team to lead. Pierce had 12 points in the fourth quarter alone, he got himself (10-13) and his team to the line. I said it (to myself, sadly, because that's how I roll) last summer and I'm saying it now - Pierce's ability to draw early-quarter fouls and make it so his teammates can earn free trips to the stripe - though that wasn't as much the case in Game 6 as it has been in other games - looms large for Boston.

Ray Allen spends his time 25 feet from the hoop, and KG's Minnesota teams were always ranked at the bottom of the NBA in free throw attempts, so they need that penalty. It's why I'd put the over/under at total fouls for Lamar Odom in the Finals somewhere in the 30 range.

Pierce scored 27 all day, on just 12 shots, threw in a team-leading eight rebounds, and turned the ball over just once in nearly 43 minutes. That's huge. That decides a game. Think of how many times Pierce touches the ball. And though Rip Hamilton finishing with three, or Rasheed or Tay Prince with this same amount of miscues may not seem like much, that was a huge deal for Detroit.

Because Hamilton doesn't dominate the ball. Prince rarely has it, and Rasheed played less than 32 minutes. So for Hamilton to lazily square up his dribble and get picked by Kendrick Perkins 26 feet from the hoop ... that hurts. It's the difference. Detroit may have had "only" 13 turnovers, but this was a low-possession game, and they ended up turning the ball over on 19.5 percent of their possessions. Nearly one-in-five. In a game like this.

The little things aren't just something we throw out there. OK, a few writers just throw it out there, but they do exist, they do count, and they do send teams home earlier than they should be going home. I'd ask the Pistons to tell you all about the little things, but you just might get a towel thrown in your face and a blue word or 12 sent your way.

Competitiveness, you know. Competitiveness.

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