The time for talk has passed and the time is now.
Since Detroit's world championship in 2004, the starters have logged serious minutes and played every regular season game as if it were a game seven, only to run out of gas by the conference finals. The notion of the club "turning it on and off" became too cliche' for team architect Joe Dumars and instead of blowing up the team, he vowed to infuse youth and energy in the rotation and preserve the legs and minutes of the Piston starting five, even if it meant sacrificing a few wins.
With the starters minutes at a five year low (32 minutes per game), the results have been two fold. Take Chauncey Billups for example. By playing a mere 3-4 minutes less per game on average, over an 82 game schedule, he plays in approximately 5-7 fewer games. So the starters should be in much better shape and the experience the minutes gave our young bench should make them a very serviceable unit. They carried much of the load over the waning games of the regular season and appear to be ready for prime time.
Round one matches the Pistons against the vastly improved Philadelphia 76ers. After dropping the first two games to the Pistons in the regular season, they battled back to take the second pair. Detroit was in the midst of saving their starters, but nevertheless, you can see the athleticism and warrior mentality that the young Sixer line-up can bring. They'll contest you on the ball and off the dribble and boards.
Let's look at each position and remember, it may look like the edge is heavily in favor of the Men from Motown, but the playoffs breed a different animal. The Pistons clearly have the edge in experience (647 games to 95) with Tayshaun Prince having played in more playoff games (97) than the entire Sixer squad.
Point Guard- Chauncey Billups vs Andre Miller
On the surface, Billups would appear to have a decided edge. And in my opinion, he does, but the numbers show the minimal difference in statistical impact. Both he and Andre Miller average 17 points, seven assists, and 1.3 steals per game while committing only 2-3 turnovers per contest. The difference is in reputation. Billups is "Mr. Big Shot" and drained 137-342 threes (40%) and hits 91.7% from the line (Miller hits 77%). He went to the line 102 more times than Miller in five less games, many in the closing seconds of wins and placed seventh in the NBA in "Super Clutch" points per 48 minutes (52.8). Miller is not a threat from three (3-34), meaning he has to extend more energy in guarding Billups, cover more of the floor, and not give up bad fouls.
Shooting Guard- Rip Hamilton vs Willie Green
Rip Hamilton logs more minutes than Detroit native Willie Green (who plays about half the game on average) and is the Pistons' leading scorer (17.5). And like Billups, Hamilton hits 83% from the line and 44% from the arc (compared to 28% for Green) which opens the floor. Pair that with Rip's constant movement around screens and on the break and 4.2 assists per game, you have a decided edge at this position as well. Green did close the season on a high note, scoring a season-high 27 against the Bobcats and playing against his hometown team, he will be motivated. Key here will be while Green plays much less minutes, he turns the ball over just as much as Rip (1.86-1.48).
Small Forward- Tayshaun Prince vs Andre Iguodala
Another hotly contested match-up and as crucial as any. Iguodala is the pulse of the Sixers and their leading scorer and nearly twenty a game (19.8) and is two spots behind Billups in "Super Clutch" points. Where he matches up better than you would think is defensively. Prince is clearly the Piston stopper and his reputation throughout the league is one of a tough night for any team's top gun, as it will be for A.I. as well. But Iguodala finished fifth in the league in steals (2.1 per game) and mirrors the gambling, defensive attitude of the team, spearheaded by head coach Maurice Cheeks, who was a stout defender in his playing days.
Power Forward- Antonio McDyess vs Reggie Evans
Though both are fierce rebounders, McDyess is much more versatile and reliable on the offensive end of the floor. His outside game will draw Evans out away from the basket and allow for the other Pistons to offensive rebound and get second chances. The Sixers want to get out and run and this will be a critical area. McDyess guards both forward and centers, so he will not be overwhelmed by the larger Evans. Both average between eight and nine boards a game. Evans turns the ball over much more and is extremely limited on offense (shoots under 50% from the stripe) and blocked a paltry eight shots over the course of the season.
Center- Rasheed Wallace vs Samuel Dalembert
Wallace is the Piston "X" factor. When he's motivated and playing well, Detroit is unstoppable. He plays better on the road than at home and will excel wherever the team needs production. He is easily the top post player in this series and is deadly when hot from the arc or the lane. He has to be accounted for from three, which again means Philly's top rebounder and shot blocker Dalembert (10.4 and 2.3 per game) has to come out from the lane and pick Sheed up. Wallace will have to be on top of his game as well on the defensive end (1.7 blocks per game) as Dalembert average four offensive rebounds per game.
In each game the two teams played this season, I have come away more and more impressed with the young players on both teams. Rodney Stuckey has blossomed into the "go-to" guy of the future for Detroit and Jason Maxiell has arrived as a force around the glass at both ends. Amir Johnson brings length and energy and Jarvis Hayes is lights out when on his offensive game. Arron Afflalo is a coming defensive stopper and the return of Theo Ratliff means a familiar asset in the paint, an eraser. Juan Dixon is a clutch and deadly shooter while veteran Lindsey Hunter can change games in limited moments.
The Sixers have some promise on their bench as well. Louis Williams, Rodney Carney, Thaddeus Young, and Jason Smith have all shown me solid play coming off the Sixer pine. Though game situations dictate minutes, each have spent time playing with the starters, making for some of the team's most effective five-man tandems, especially Williams and Smith, while Young's increased minutes helped spark the Sixers late season surge.
The late season play of the Detroit bench, sometimes playing most games, mean better cohesiveness and chemistry.
The Pistons are coming in with the attitude that every team is a threat. They know they haven't lived up to expectations over the past couple seasons and know the Sixers may be inexperienced, but don't know any better as well. They have nothing to lose and even if they were to get past Detroit in round one only to drop in the next, they would deem their season a great success and the future will look bright.
The Pistons have planned for the post season all year long and have succeeded in developing the bench to where its as deep as any in the league. There should be no more "turning it on and off" during the playoffs for this club. So when the lights go on, it will be game on, even in the first round.
Detroit wins in six games.